The 2020 Democratic National Convention was, officially, a program celebrating Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the party’s nominees for president and vice president. But throughout the past week, it was clear the event belonged to former President Barack Obama.

Democrats did their best to make the untested virtual format all about Uncle Joe. A parade of amiable celebrities and charming family members offered up home videos and testimonials about how much they like the Democratic nominee. Julia Louis-Dreyfus gushed about the prospect of returning “decency and normalcy” to the White House. Biden’s grandchildren said he calls them every day. Thirteen-year-old Brayden Harrington offered a genuinely moving note about Biden’s support for a fellow stutterer.

When Biden finally took the podium for a recorded address, he suggested that the power of his sheer goodness would lead the country out of “shadow and suspicion,” bathing it in “hope and light.” “Character is on the ballot,” he said. “Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy ― they’re all on the ballot.”

It was a speech devoid of big ideas, and also devoid of small ideas, like most of the four-day event preceding it. Biden does indeed seem like a nice guy. But almost nowhere did anyone talk about what Biden and Harris might actually do with power. Nothing of substance on climate change, nor on inequality, nor on corruption or war or even how to deal with the myriad effects of the mismanaged pandemic, beyond testing and masks.

And based on the early reviews, that’s just fine with most Democrats. Biden didn’t run his primary campaign on big ideas; he ran on being friends with Obama, and that was good enough to win him a smashing victory over his qualified and impressive challengers left, right and center.

That left it to Obama to instill this week’s festivities with significance, and he did so with a remarkable speech Wednesday night ― perhaps the most important of his career ― against which the rest of the convention can only be understood as an afterthought.

Former President Barack Obama addresses the virtual Democratic National Convention on Aug. 19, 2020, from Philadelphia. Handout via Getty Images Former President Barack Obama addresses the virtual Democratic National Convention on Aug. 19, 2020, from Philadelphia. 

Over the course of 20 minutes, Obama, at times tearing up, presented a deep meditation on the meaning of America, a narrative that sought to grapple with the country’s shortcomings while insisting that it is and always has been founded on a fundamentally democratic ideal worth saving and serving.

“Whatever our backgrounds, we’re all the children of Americans who fought the good fight. Great-grandparents working in firetraps and sweatshops without rights or representation. Farmers losing their dreams to dust. Irish and Italians and Asians and Latinos told to go back where they came from. Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Sikhs, made to feel suspect for the way they worshiped. Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters. Beaten for trying to vote.

If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans. Our ancestors. They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives. They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work. We are going to bring those words, in our founding documents, to life.”

For most Democrats, I suspect, Obama’s words were simply common sense ― the idea of the country they have treasured all their lives. But Obama’s national biography is decidedly out of tune with left-wing intellectual discourse, in which the stated ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are whitewash for a legacy of horror ― from slavery to the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the Second World War to the 2 million civilians killed in the Vietnam War to the invasion of Iraq.

Obama’s rosier version of events also elides more mainstream critiques of American neoliberalism, a history in which Democrats and Republicans have joined hands since the late 1970s in an economic project that stripped wealth from the American middle class and delivered it to the wealthy and well-connected. In Obama’s tale, activists and dreamers have always struggled against titanic structural forces, inducing change through the magic of activism, much as other presenters at the convention suggested Biden would charm America to prosperity. They struggle not against governing decisions made by particular politicians, but against an ancient, unchanging evil.

Obama’s story of America matters because it was the only point in this four-day convention in which anyone offered a plausible positive rationale for people to get out and vote. Every other voice raised for Biden relied on the prospective cataclysm Trump will wreak if Democrats do not vote him from power. Vote or die, the choice is yours.

Obama alluded to the same potential destruction but gave his listeners a political tradition from which to rise, a historical cause to embrace, and a set of animating ideas. The election is a fight for democracy itself and for the idea of America that Obama, deep in his bones, knows to be True. It is not politicians who make history, Obama insists, but protesters and peoples demanding change.

The way Obama talks about the country is the way most Democrats think about America, and the way most Democrats want to think about it. It is a story in which change is not only necessary but possible, in which respect for our collective humanity is not only an ideal but a historical reality we can resurrect together.

Like all narratives from politicians, Obama’s story is self-serving. He suggests that his administration failed to overcome important obstacles, but elides those it created of its own accord. Obama oversaw a foreclosure program that threw struggling homeowners to Wall Street’s wolves, deported more immigrants than any president in history, ignored an opioid crisis that took millions of lives, droned a wedding, bombarded a Doctors Without Borders hospital and repeatedly protected American torturers. For the Democratic Party faithful, the Obama years remain the good old days, but a great many lost faith along the way.

This was not a speech intended to transform his intraparty critics into defenders. It was intended to marshall them to the polls. And on this point, I suspect Obama will succeed. Personal charisma alone has not sustained Obama as the most popular Democrat in the country for more than a decade. The way Obama talks about the country is the way most Democrats think about America, and the way most Democrats — even lapsed Democrats — want to think about it. It is a story in which change is not only necessary but possible, in which respect for our collective humanity is not only an ideal but a historical reality we can resurrect together.

There is no real choice in this presidential election. Trump is a racist authoritarian whose incompetence has enabled the deaths of 173,000 Americans and all but destroyed the American economy. So far as our votes are concerned, it doesn’t really matter whether Biden is a nice guy with no ideas or a lousy friend with brilliant white papers.

But there will be governing decisions to be made come January, should Biden prevail in November. And the stakes of those decisions will be very high. The parade of Trumpian atrocities makes it difficult for most Americans to imagine a more horrifying alternative, but as former first lady Michelle Obama noted in her convention speech Tuesday night: “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can.”

Biden will inherit the worst economy since 1933 and an American society more fractured than any since 1865. The fight for democracy will not only be at the polls but in policymaking, where the administration will have to take bold action to persuade the country that democracy can, in fact, tackle the challenges of this era.

If the American left hopes to see the transformative action necessary for averting another authoritarian slide, it will have to mold its ideas about sweeping change to a narrative that resembles what Obama presented on Wednesday night. Right or wrong, it’s what Democrats want to hear. And there is no way forward for democracy outside the world’s oldest political party.

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