The baton has been passed.
President Barack Obama largely ignored his own legacy and delivered a ringing endorsement of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Wednesday, capping an evening that focused on the high stakes in November’s election.
A White House official who briefed reporters earlier in the day pointed to past party convention speeches by outgoing second-term presidents, saying they traditionally have talked about their stints in the Oval Office.
But Obama broke with that tradition, telling Democratic delegates in Philadelphia “there has never been a man or a woman more qualified — not Bill, not me, not anyone — than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.”
His conservative critics often hit Obama for, as they see it, his habit of talking about himself and his record even in times of crisis. For instance, social media lit up with such observations earlier this month when the president addressed a memorial service for five slain Dallas police officers.
White House officials defend that and other remarks by saying, as the country’s first African-American president, he is merely using his own story to make a point.
What’s more, it was a dozen years ago to the day that Obama — then a little-known Illinois state senator and U.S. Senate candidate — erupted onto the national stage with a powerful keynote address in Boston at the 2004 Democratic convention. That anniversary could have given the 44th president and his speech-writing team a hook on which to hang a legacy address.
But Obama chose another route Wednesday night, letting an eight-minute video about his legacy burnish his resume. After a brief opening remarks on his own tenure, he focused on trying to convince voters to keep the executive branch in Democratic hands for the next four years.
“Time and again, you’ve picked me up,” Obama said. “I hope, sometimes, I picked you up, too. Tonight, I ask you to do for Hillary Clinton what you did for me. I ask you to carry her the same way you carried me.
“America, you have vindicated that hope these past eight years. And now I’m ready to pass the baton and do my part as a private citizen,” the president said. “This year, in this election, I’m asking you to join me – to reject cynicism, reject fear, to summon what’s best in us; to elect Hillary Clinton as the next President of the United States, and show the world we still believe in the promise of this great nation.”
His full-throated endorsement of his former secretary of state seemed a signal that Obama, whom even his fiercest critics acknowledge is a master of presidential politics, realizes the general election outcome could be very close.
That’s why he chose to put her over in Philadelphia, to continue his vow to be “one of the loudest voices out there making the case for Hillary Clinton,” the White House official told reporters.
“Nothing truly prepares you for the demands of the Oval Office. 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,” Obama said. “But Hillary’s been in the room; she’s been part of those decisions. She knows what’s at stake in the decisions our government makes for the working family, the senior citizen, the small business owner, the soldier, and the veteran.
Even in the middle of crisis, she listens to people, and keeps her cool, and treats everybody with respect,” he said. “And no matter how daunting the odds; no matter how much people try to knock her down, she never, ever quits.
Obama’s speech came several days after as Trump, off his rocky nominating convention, vaulted ahead of the Democratic nominee in many polls. One, conducted by CNN, showed the New York businessman leading 44 percent to 39 percent, in a four-way race also featuring the nominees of the Libertarian and Green parties. (That survey had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.)
The Economist/YouGov Poll conducted in the days after last week’s Republican National Convention found Trump within two points of Clinton (40 percent to 38 percent), with a 4.2 percentage points error margin.
“America is already great,” Obama said, knocking Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. “America is already strong. And I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump.”
He also broke with his months-old practice of referring to and criticizing Trump and his many vague — and unprecedented — policy pronouncements without using the Republican nominee’s name. In fact, Obama called out the former reality television star by name around a half-dozen times. At one point, he called Trump “the Donald.” At another , he alluded to “homegrown demagogues,” saying they always fail in America.
“Hillary has real plans to address the concerns she’s heard from you on the campaign trail,” Obama said. “She’s got specific ideas to invest in new jobs, to help workers share in their company’s profits, to help put kids in preschool, and put students through college without taking on a ton of debt. That’s what leaders do.
“And then there’s Donald Trump. He’s not really a plans guy,” he added, in the middle chasing off jeers at the mention of the GOP nominee’s name by advising the Wells Fargo Center crowd: “Don’t boo — vote.”
“Not really a facts guy, either. He calls himself a business guy, which is true, but I have to say, I know plenty of businessmen and women who’ve achieved success without leaving a trail of lawsuits, and unpaid workers, and people feeling like they got cheated,” the outgoing chief executive said.
Obama questioned how “a guy who’s spent his 70 years on this Earth showing no regard for working people is suddenly going to be your champion? Your voice?” He added that if voters want a president who is “truly concerned” and the concerns of average voters, “then the choice isn’t even close.”
“If you want someone with a lifelong track record of fighting for higher wages, better benefits, a fairer tax code, a bigger voice for workers, and stronger regulations on Wall Street, then you should vote for Hillary Clinton,” he said to applause in the massive venue. “And if you’re concerned about who’s going to keep you and your family safe in a dangerous world – well, the choice is even clearer. Hillary Clinton is respected around the world not just by leaders, but by the people they serve.”
The idea was for Obama to draw a stark contrast between Clinton and Trump, arguing she has dedicated most of her adult life and career to helping others, while the New York-based businessman has never been a fighter for average people, according to administration officials.
Earlier in the evening, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., delivered a similar message, saying of Clinton: “She’s always there. She’s always been there.”
“That’s not Donald Trump’s story,” Biden said. “His cynicism is unbounded. His lack of empathy and compassion is summed up in the phrase … ‘you’re fired.’”
“Think about everything you learned as a child … how can there be pleasure in saying, ‘You’re fired?’” Biden asked rhetorically. “How can he tell us he cares about the middle class? That’s a bunch of malarkey.… He has no clue — period.”
Her running mate, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, said Clinton is ready because of her experience and her heart.
Democratic strategist Brad Bannon applauded all speakers’ at the Democratic confab portraying Clinton as a tough leader with no quit insider her.
“When she gets knocked down, she always gets up fighting,” Bannon said. “Every time she tries to do it, it turns out horribly. When she tries to humanize herself, she usually does a bad job of it. If she wins this thing, she’ll win it because voters will know she’s tough enough to stand up to the [Russian President Vladimir] Putins and the North Koreas.”
Obama also used themes from his 2004 DNC speech at the start and conclusion of his speech, as a way of reflection. During his address that year, Obama tried to dispel the notion of separate red states and blue states with polarizing politics and spoke hopefully of the United States of America.
The president is repeated messages he has delivered in public in recent weeks, as a series of police-related shootings have gripped the country. One was that Americans are “better together,” a line that aligns closely with Clinton’s “stronger together” campaign theme.
“What we heard in Cleveland [at the GOP convention] last week wasn’t particularly Republican – and it sure wasn’t conservative,” he said. “What we heard was a deeply pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other, and turn away from the rest of the world.
“There were no serious solutions to pressing problems – just the fanning of resentment, and blame, and anger, and hate,” Obama said. “And that is not the America I know.
“The America I know is full of courage, and optimism, and ingenuity. The America I know is decent and generous. Sure, we have real anxieties,” Obama said. “But as I’ve traveled this country, through all 50 states, as I’ve rejoiced with you and mourned with you, what I’ve also seen, more than anything, is what is right with America.”
But the outgoing commander in chief’s main message was it is Clinton, not Trump, who is ready to take over what experts say is the world’s most powerful military.
“I know Hillary won’t relent until [the Islamic State] is destroyed,” he said. “She’ll finish the job – and she’ll do it without resorting to torture, or banning entire religions from entering our country. She is fit to be the next Commander-in-Chief.
“Meanwhile, Donald Trump calls our military a disaster. Apparently, he doesn’t know the men and women who make up the strongest fighting force the world has ever known. He suggests America is weak,” Obama said. “He must not hear the billions of men, women, and children, from the Baltics to Burma, who still look to America to be the light of freedom, dignity, and human rights.”
To that end, Retired Navy Rear Adm. John Hutson, told the crowd earlier in the night that Clinton is the “only candidate with a specific plan to defeat ISIS.”
Hutson called her “smart and steady,” adding she has the “temperament and spine to be a superb commander in chief.” He also painted Trump as unfit to lead the military.
As Obama finished his speech, Clinton joined him on stage. They waved to the crowd, her arm around his back, and chatted before he raised her arm to even louder applause.