If the United States of America survives another century, currently an uncertain prospect, then the current living politician whose words are most likely to continue to be studied is Barack Obama. He and Bill Clinton are often rated together as orators, but they are in fact very different in scope. Bill Clinton is a master at giving wonky barn burners, speeches that make easily understandable in an almost folksy vernacular complex matters of social debate. Obama is a more classic speaker in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., one who speaks to the highest issues of politics: national unity and citizenship.
Obama’s five convention speeches from 2004 until 2020 have a literary cohesiveness that is unusual in American politics. They echo each other in theme and sometimes phrases, calling back earlier promises and reevaluating them in the light of changing circumstances. Grappling with the problem of how a divided nation stays together, they suggest that Obama has become increasingly pessimistic about the prospects of American democracy.
In his speech on Wednesday night’s Democratic National Convention, Obama made as forceful and damning an indictment of Donald Trump as possible, and connected the case against his successor with deeper problems in American democracy:
I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies. I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care.
But he never did. For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.
Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.
These words are as true and blunt as one could hope for. And yet Obama’s vision of democracy might not be motivating enough. He is making a case based on civic obligation, which presupposes a level of democratic engagement that is desirable but doesn’t exist.
At one point Obama said, “Democracy was never meant to be transactional—you give me your vote; I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry. So I am also asking you to believe in your own ability—to embrace your own responsibility as citizens—to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure.”
But is it really true that democracy isn’t transactional? Don’t most people vote for politicians because they expect their lives to be materially improved in some way—not to have all their problems solved, certainly, but at least to have major issues addressed?
Trump is a consummately transactional figure. He has managed to hold the Republican coalition to his side despite his personal corruption and low moral character. He’s done so by giving every component of his coalition some benefit: for evangelicals, judges and anti-LGBTQ policy; for the rich, tax cuts; for the national security state, much more money; for racists, an immigration crackdown.
One could argue that Trump is a bad example to follow. But he’s doing what all politicians have done, including successful Democratic presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and, yes, Barack Obama.
If Joe Biden is to succeed, he might have to put aside the high-minded rhetoric of his former running mate and concentrate on bread-and-butter transactional politics.