WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Former President Barack Obama warned Wednesday night that American democracy may not survive if President Donald Trump is reelected, a damning assessment of his successor intended to jolt Democrats into rallying around Joe Biden and doing whatever it takes to vote.
“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t,” Obama charged, speaking from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, a backdrop chosen to reinforce what the former president sees as the dire stakes of the moment.
“I have sat in the Oval Office with both of the men who are running for president,” Obama continued, describing Biden as his brother. “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.”
Obama’s remarks were striking for their bluntness, especially from a figure who has spoken fondly of the tradition of presidents refraining from publicly criticizing their successors. But he reflected the Democrats’ view that the nation is facing an existential crisis as it confronts health and economic turmoil and a reckoning on racial justice. The party’s 2016 nominee, Hillary Clinton, echoed those warnings earlier in the evening.
Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, was capping the third night of the convention in a symbolic hand-off from Obama, the nation’s first Black president, to the first Black woman on a major party ticket.
The night focused on the party’s commitment to progressive values on issues like gun violence and climate change, while highlighting speakers most likely to connect with women and all people of color, voters whose energy this fall could ultimately decide the outcome.
Democrats targeted Trump’s policies and personality throughout, casting him as cruel in his treatment of immigrants, disinterested in the nation’s climate crisis and over his head in virtually all of the nation’s most pressing challenges.
Above all, there was an urgent focus on voting.
Harris, the 55-year-old California senator whose parents are Jamaican and Indian, made a surprise appearance early in the program, calling on supporters to have a specific “voting plan” to overcome the obstacles to voting raised by the coronavirus pandemic and postal slowdowns.
“When we vote things change, when we vote things get better, when we vote we address the need for all people to be treated with dignity and respect,” Harris said. “So each of us needs a plan, a voting plan.”
Just 76 days before the election, Biden faces the difficult task of energizing each of the disparate factions that make up the modern-day Democratic Party – a coalition that spans generation, race and ideology. And this fall voters must deal with concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic that has created health risks for those who want to vote in person.
Biden leads many polls, but his supporters report being motivated far more by antipathy toward Trump than genuine excitement about Biden, a 77-year-old white man who has spent nearly a half century in politics.
Democrats hope that Harris and Obama in particular can help bridge the divide between those reassured by Biden’s establishment credentials and those craving bolder change.
The pandemic has forced Biden’s team to abandon the traditional convention format in favor of an all-virtual affair that has eliminated much of the pomp and circumstance that typically defines political conventions.
The Democratic convention will build to a finale Thursday night when Biden will deliver his acceptance speech in a mostly empty convention hall near his Delaware home.
And after two nights that featured several Republicans, Democrats on Wednesday emphasized their party’s values on issues like climate change and gun violence, issues that particularly resonate with younger voters.
On guns, Biden wants to repeal a law shielding firearm manufacturers from liability lawsuits, impose universal background checks for purchases and ban the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high capacity magazines. On climate, Biden has proposed a $2 trillion plan to invest in clean energy and end carbon emissions from U.S. power plants by 2035, even though his proposals don’t go as far as activists’ preferred “Green New Deal.”
A face of the the Democrats’ support for gun control, former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords reflected on her own journey of pain and recovery from a severe brain injury nearly a decade after being shot in the head while meeting with constituents. She urged America to support Biden.
“I struggle to speak, but I have not lost my voice,” Giffords said. “Vote, vote, vote.”
Next week it’s Trump’s turn.
The president, who abandoned plans to host his convention in North Carolina and Florida, is expected to break tradition and accept his nomination from the White House lawn.
Trump spent much of this week hosting campaign events in battleground states in an attempt to distract from the Democrats’ virtual festivities. While he did not travel on Wednesday, the Republican president railed against Biden and his party at a press conference while praising a conspiracy theory group that claims Trump’s opponents have links to satanism and child sex trafficking.
“We’re saving the world from a radical left philosophy that will destroy this country,” Trump said. “And when this country is gone, the rest of the world would follow.”
Hyperbole and praise for far-right extremists has become a hallmark of Trump’s presidency, which has inflamed tensions at home and alienated allies around the world.
Harris, in her prepared remarks, said the nation is at a critical point,struggling under Trump’s “chaos,” “incompetence”and “callousness.”
“We can do better and deserve so much more,” Harris says. “We must elect a president who will bring something different, something better, and do the important work. A president who will bring all of us together — Black, White, Latino, Asian, Indigenous — to achieve the future we collectively want.”
Hillary Clinton, the first woman nominated for president by a major party, spoke ahead of Obama, the nation’s first Black president, and Harris, Biden’s running mate and the first Black woman on a major party ticket.
“For four years, people have said to me, ‘I didn’t realize how dangerous he was.’ ‘I wish I could go back and do it over.’ Or worst, ‘I should have voted,’” Clinton said. “Well, this can’t be another woulda coulda shoulda election.”
She added: “Vote like our lives and livelihoods are on the line, because they are.”
Obama, speaking later in the night, hoping to serve as a bridge between those reassured by Biden’s lengthy resume and more moderate record, and a younger generation of Democrats agitating for more dramatic change.
He warned that American democracy might not survive another four years of Trump. He urged voters to “embrace your own responsibility as citizens – to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure. Because that’s what is at stake right now. Our democracy.”
Obama confidants say that the former president’s support for Biden is unequivocal, but he does worry about enthusiasm among younger voters, particularly younger voters of color. Democrats concede that one of the reasons Trump won the presidency in 2016 was because those voters didn’t show up in the same large numbers as when Obama was on the ballot.
Beyond the carefully scripted confines of the virtual convention, there were modest signs of tension between the moderate and progressive wings of Biden’s Democratic Party.
In particular, some progressives complained that pro-Biden Republicans such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich have been featured more prominently than the party’s younger progressive stars like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Climate activists also complained that the party appeared ready to drop a provision in the platform that calls for an end to fossil fuel industry subsidies and tax breaks.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a favorite of progressives for demanding bold change, was expected to speak Wednesday night, but only for a few minutes.
It remains to be seen whether the unconventional convention will give Biden the momentum he’s looking for.
Preliminary estimates show that television viewership for the first night of the virtual convention was down compared with the opening of Hillary Clinton’s onsite nominating party four years ago.