The Corner

Elections

Barack Obama, Center Stage on Kamala Harris’s Night

Former President Barack Obama speaks by video feed during the 2020 Democratic National Convention, August 19, 2020. (2020 Democratic National Convention/Pool via Reuters)

It’s hard to ascribe much importance to the conventions this year; the reported TV ratings are terrible for the Democrats so far, and even if that’s hard to measure — the audiences are undoubtedly scattered among all sorts of platforms — the visual effect of speakers without crowds is a real buzz-killer. Joe Biden couldn’t even do the traditional bunny-hug with his running mate, although given Biden’s history, that may be for the best.

Tonight was Barack Obama and Kamala Harris’s night. And Harris probably would have been wise to turn down Obama’s offer to let her go last. Obama may have been overrated as a communicator, in the sense that he has often given speeches with no content anyone remembered much later, but nobody has ever questioned the man’s talent at delivering a speech. If anything, the absence of an audience to play to for applause lines made him more effective. Which made him a tough act to follow.

Conservatives will (as I did) gag at a lot of Obama’s platitudes about the Constitution and being a president for all the people (the latter a pretense he ditched later in the speech to start ranting about what THEY want and how THEY are standing in your way), as well as his longstanding tic of referring only to religion as “worship” (as president and in his 2012 campaign, he was not so big on letting people practice their faith) and lauding Biden as the last man in the room when he made big decisions (skimming over the time Biden opposed the raid that got Osama bin Laden), but none of that is likely to stick in the craw of any persuadable voter tonight. What was most effective was the more-in-sorrow-than-anger way he went after Donald Trump for not taking the job seriously — not “putting in the work,” which of course has been a great frustration even to many of Trump’s supporters:

I have sat in the Oval Office with both of the men who are running for president. 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; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care. But he never did. For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves. Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t.

What Harris mostly succeeded in conveying was how very, very happy she was to be on this ticket. Which is something: It’s better than picking a former rival who is obviously unhappy to be there. Harris’s affect during the primary debates always veered between the courtroom histrionics of a trial lawyer and a strange giddiness; I could never tell whether the latter was an effort at Al Gore–style overcompensation. In any event, we got a blend of the two tonight, but mostly the giddiness. She rather audaciously promised that “Joe will bring us together to end this pandemic,” but then, it is apt to end some time in the next four years, so why not start taking credit now? Harris’s speech was actually remarkably short on attack-dog lines, which may reflect a sense that it was more important to introduce her than to have yet another speaker bash Trump.

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