Obama, at Convention, lays out stakes for a divided nation - VIDEO

  28 July 2016    Read: 1875
Obama, at Convention, lays out stakes for a divided nation - VIDEO
By Julie Hirschfield Davis and Michael d. Shear

This is not about me, President Obama kept telling his closest advisers in recent weeks as he labored over one of the last major addresses of his presidency.
But he could not avoid the subject. And as he took the stage here Wednesday night to rally Democrats around Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama’s diagnosis of the nation’s current political failings inevitably called to mind the promise of reconciliation and unity that propelled his improbable rise, but that seems even more out of reach today.

“We get frustrated with political gridlock and worry about racial divisions; we are shocked and saddened by the madness of Orlando or Nice,” Mr. Obama said. But he added, “What I have also seen, more than anything, is what is right with America.”

Mr. Obama’s eyes welled with tears as he spoke of his faith in the American people and urged voters to transfer their trust in him to the woman he hopes will succeed him. “Time and again, you’ve picked me up and I hope, sometimes, I’ve picked you up, too,” he said. “Tonight, I ask you to do for Hillary Clinton what you did for me.”

It was Mr. Obama’s lyrical rejection of “a politics of cynicism” 12 years ago to the night, as the keynote speaker of the 2004 Democratic convention, that dazzled a national audience and thrust him into the spotlight, setting him on his path to two terms in the Oval Office.

Now, the challenge for Mr. Obama as he shifts gears for the final months of his presidency is to find a way to acknowledge that the political divides he promised to bridge have only grown deeper and more acrimonious — while arguing persuasively that the way to rise above them is to elect Mrs. Clinton and reject Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee.

The president left it mostly to others on Wednesday to praise his record and defend his decisions, beginning in an eight-minute video that, while celebrating his major accomplishments, dwelled heavily on the challenges Mr. Obama has faced, and worked hard to excuse him for what he had not achieved, particularly on gun control.

Here’s our real-time analysis of the third night of the Democratic National Convention, featuring Joseph R. Biden Jr., Michael Bloomberg, Barack Obama and Tim Kaine.

In his speech, Mr. Obama argued emphatically — rebuking Mr. Trump eight times by name — that the Republican nominee had played on Americans’ fears rather than offered them solutions to their problems.

“America is already great,” he said. “America is already strong. And I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump.”

But the president devoted far more of his speech to Mrs. Clinton, offering himself up as a powerful force in validating her qualifications for the presidency and her moral authority.

“You can read about it, you can study it, but until you’ve sat at that desk, you don’t know what it’s like to manage a global crisis or send young people to war,” Mr. Obama said. “But Hillary’s been in the room; she’s been part of those decisions.”

He continued, “Even in the midst of crisis, she listens to people, and she keeps her cool, and she treats everybody with respect.”

And he expressed solidarity for her even as he alluded to her failings, and to his own. “She knows that sometimes during those 40 years, she’s made mistakes, just like I have,” he said. “Just like we all do.”

The president left no doubt of his commitment to helping Mrs. Clinton succeed him, saying that “there has never been a man or a woman more qualified than Hillary Clinton” to serve as president.

In doing so, he was also making a vigorous argument for his vision of the country, in both its soaring possibilities and the messier realities, and asking Americans to embrace their differences and work for change.

Implicit in Mr. Obama’s political rise was the idea that if he became president he would help Americans rise above the partisan and racial divisions that cleaved the nation. It was never just about him, his aides argued in interviews this week; rather, it was Mr. Obama’s ability to give voice to such widely shared aspirations that rallied voters behind him.

In his 2004 convention speech, a testimonial to John Kerry, the Democratic nominee that year, Mr. Obama decried the “spin masters and negative-ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes,” and he foreshadowed the political theme that would ultimately carry him into the White House by urging “a politics of hope.”

Then as now, Mr. Obama was vouching for someone else, but what many Americans actually heard was a compelling argument for his own leadership.

In January, in his final State of the Union address, he conceded he had fallen short. And a few weeks later, on the steps of the Illinois statehouse, where he had first become a candidate for president, Mr. Obama expressed a deep regret for “my inability to reduce the polarization and meanness in our politics.” It was, he said, one of the bitterest failures of his presidency.

That partisan strife is also one of the chief reasons to oppose Mr. Trump’s candidacy, the president often says: In his view, Mr. Trump would dramatically worsen, not improve, what Mr. Obama said in Springfield was a “poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in our public life.”

On Wednesday night, the president portrayed Mr. Trump as a nasty and divisive candidate who would govern from the White House by dividing the country into the very kinds of opposing camps that Mr. Obama argued in 2004 were unhealthy and wrong.

The president decried what he called the “deeply pessimistic” vision of America that emerged from Mr. Trump’s convention in Cleveland last week — saying it offered no solutions but rather fanned “resentment and blame and anger and hate. And that is not the America I know.”

Mr. Obama, whose approval ratings have risen above 50 percent, was loath to be seen as taking a victory lap, as departing two-term presidents before him have done at their conventions. Top advisers said he had rejected the idea of a valedictory address in the style of Ronald Reagan in 1988 or Bill Clinton in 2000.

He was also keenly aware, however, that reminding voters why they gravitated to him in the first place could be the most powerful way to boost Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy — and with it, his own chance of achieving a lasting legacy.

Hours before Mr. Obama was to speak at the convention, word emerged that he would build his presidential library in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago, the latest reminder that he was preparing his exit and that Mrs. Clinton was, in the words of a senior adviser, “the torchbearer” of his legacy.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Obama insisted that despite the political divisions that remain, the country remains a hopeful one that will embrace the optimism of Mrs. Clinton over the bleak vision of Mr. Trump.

“That’s what Hillary Clinton understands,” Mr. Obama said. “This fighter, this stateswoman, this mother and grandmother, this public servant, this patriot — that’s the America she’s fighting for.”

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