It's Still Barack Obama's Party

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August 19, 2020

The programmers behind the Democratic National Convention must have known they had a problem. Major speeches, from Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama, and Kamala Harris, had to be included in the 10 p.m. hour to guarantee the widest audience. How then to fill up the first 60 minutes? They settled for videos and speeches about a mishmash of hot button cultural issues: gun violence, immigration, climate change, women's rights, and domestic violence. I found Gabby Giffords's speech moving, but the rest was a snooze. An Obama-Trump voter in Michigan, Wisconsin, or Pennsylvania would probably view with skepticism this litany of progressive causes. Then she would change the channel as soon as Hillary Clinton appeared onscreen.

The second hour was more compelling. Elizabeth Warren gave an effective speech. She focused on an issue, child care, that is sure to be of interest to working moms. She also made an argument for government policies that promote "family infrastructure." It's a thought-provoking phrase that pro-natalist reformocons and national populists might want to appropriate for their own purposes.

Kamala Harris introduced herself to the American public for the first time as the Democratic vice presidential nominee. She repeated many of the personal details she included in her speech last week, and then made the case for the Biden-Harris ticket. I thought the speech was fine, though not as good as Michelle Obama's or Jill Biden's. But Harris had a major disadvantage: She followed President Obama.

The contrast in setting was striking. Obama appeared from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. Harris spoke to an empty hotel ballroom. And then there were the differences in rhetoric and delivery. It is hard for any politician, much less a freshman senator whose presidential campaign ended before the first votes were cast, to surpass Obama's standard of performance. When he burst onto the scene in 2004, he called for national unity. Now he warned that democracy might not survive a second Trump term. It was an audacious claim that is sure to stir the emotions of the Democratic base. (And those of the Republican base, too.)

The media accolades for Obama's every utterance are a reminder of the hold he maintains on the liberal imagination. You can draw a line from Obama's lead-from-behind administration to Donald Trump's election, and Trump has erased many of Obama's policies, but the former president is unimpeachable in the eyes of Bobo liberals. I'm eager to read tomorrow's papers to see how analysts spin Harris's address as the equivalent of Obama's. It wasn't.

Obama's ability to translate his rhetorical prowess to victory for other Democrats is limited. Caught up in the reveries of his presence, Democrats always seem to forget that their party was a wreck by the time Obama left the White House. Obama made a similar case against Trump in 2016. It didn't work. And he will keep making the case against Trump and other Republicans long into the future, whether or not his former vice president wins in November. It was reported that Obama agreed to move his speech ahead of Harris's to signal a "passing of the torch." Well, the torch didn't go anywhere. This is still Barack and Michelle Obama's Democratic Party.