WASHINGTON — There was a moment during his Democratic National Convention speech on Wednesday night when former President Barack Obama appeared on the edge of tears. Evoking American ancestors persecuted because of their race, religion or nationality, he said they had every reason to give up on democracy but did not.
In his telling, that is what is at stake at this hinge point in history, nothing less than the future of democracy, and he seemed emotional in a way that the famously stoic former president rarely allows himself to be in public. He talked of “dark times” and “hardship and injustice” and “the meanness and the lies and crazy conspiracy theories.” He declared that this year’s election will determine whether America lives up to its promise.
His excoriation of his successor was withering. The incumbent president, he charged, is lazy, uncaring and interested only in drawing attention to himself. President Trump, Mr. Obama said, acts as if he is “above the law,” uses his office “to enrich” himself and his allies, exploits the military “as political props” to be deployed against peaceful protesters, demonizes his opponents and the free press, and disregards science during a deadly pandemic in favor of “just making stuff up.” What’s more, he added, Mr. Trump is trying to suppress the vote to stay in office.
The 19-minute address, delivered in front of an exhibit titled “Writing the Constitution” at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, reflected a long journey from the hope and change of 2008 when Mr. Obama sailed into the White House on a fundamentally optimistic message that whatever the country’s problems, they could be solved by coming together. Twelve years later, he did not seem quite so certain. With Mr. Trump in the White House, Mr. Obama sounded more worried than perhaps at any point in his public life.
这场19分钟的讲话是在费城的美国革命博物馆(Museum of the American Revolution)一个名叫“书写宪法”的展览上发表的，反思了一段始于2008年的希望与变革的漫长历程，当时的奥巴马携带着一个根本上乐观的讯息入主白宫：无论这个国家有什么问题，只要团结起来就能解决。12年后，他似乎不那么肯定了。特朗普入主白宫后，奥巴马似乎比他在公众生活中的任何时候都更加忧心忡忡。
“This president and those in power — those who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism,” Mr. Obama told his audience. “They know they can’t win you over with their policies, so they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter.”
“We can’t let that happen,” he added. “Do not let them take away your power. Do not let them take away your democracy.”
Such an assault by a former president on his successor was stark and unusual, though not unprecedented. Theodore Roosevelt was so harsh toward William Howard Taft that he actually ran against him; he later called Woodrow Wilson “the most wretched creature we have had in the Presidential chair.”
前总统对继任者进行这样的攻击，虽然并非史无前例，但也显得严酷而不同寻常。西奥多·罗斯福(Theodore Roosevelt)对威廉·霍华德·塔夫脱(William Howard Taft)不满到要跟他打选战；他后来还将伍德罗·威尔逊(Woodrow Wilson)称为“我们总统位置上最可鄙的生物”。
Herbert Hoover got up at his party’s convention four years after leaving office and accused Franklin D. Roosevelt of “despotism.” Jimmy Carter called George W. Bush’s administration the “worst in history.”
卸任四年后，赫伯特·胡佛(Herbert Hoover)在民主党全国代表大会上起立，指责富兰克林·D·罗斯福(Franklin D. Roosevelt)的“专制”。吉米·卡特(Jimmy Carter)称乔治·W·布什(George W. Bush)政府是“历史上最糟糕的”。
During the midterm campaign in 2018, Mr. Obama traveled the country denouncing Mr. Trump for “lying” and “fear-mongering” and “ripping immigrant children from the arms of their mothers.” But then he went quiet again, largely keeping out of sight until recent days as he began speaking out on behalf of his former vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was nominated this week as the Democratic challenger to Mr. Trump.
在2018年中期选举期间，奥巴马在全国各地巡回，谴责特朗普“撒谎”、“制造恐慌”，以及“从母亲手中夺走移民儿童”。但随后他又沉默下来，基本上一直不露面，直到最近几天，他开始为他的前副总统小约瑟夫·R·拜登(Joseph R. Biden Jr.)发声，拜登本周被提名为特朗普的民主党挑战者。
Still, this was Mr. Obama’s most prominent stage since leaving office and his censure of Mr. Trump went further than any of his more recent predecessors, who largely avoided criticizing fellow members of the world’s most exclusive club by name in public. It reflected the deep antipathy the 44th president harbors toward the 45th — one that is mutual, of course, given Mr. Trump’s routine denunciations of Mr. Obama, including unfounded accusations of treason.
Indeed, Mr. Trump did not wait for Mr. Obama to finish before responding, posting a couple of Twitter messages in all capital letters as his predecessor was still speaking. “HE SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN, AND GOT CAUGHT!” Mr. Trump wrote, twisting the known facts to make an uncorroborated charge.
On Thursday morning, Mr. Trump’s senior adviser, Stephen Miller, fired back as well. “President Obama was one of the worst presidents, if not the worst president, in U.S. history,” he told reporters.
One of the more curious reactions to Mr. Obama’s stated concern about democracy came from a Trump campaign spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson. “We are NOT a Democracy!!” she wrote on Twitter. “Not understanding this simple, yet critical fact, is likely the root cause of Trump Derangement Syndrome! The United States is a Republic.”
While scholars might agree on the distinction between a pure democracy and a republic, in which the views of citizens are reflected by their elected representatives in the capital, it still is pretty unusual politics for a president’s staff to defend him by declaring that America is not a democracy.
There was no question that democracy was the point for Mr. Obama. He used the word 18 times in his speech, and his presence at the revolution museum in the city where America declared its independence and wrote its Constitution was meant to reinforce the theme.
“This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win,” Mr. Obama said.
The difference between his speech on Wednesday night and his convention speech in 2008 when he accepted the nomination on the road to the White House was striking. Even as he attacked “the failed policies of George W. Bush” on that Denver stage and the Republican choice to succeed him, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the disagreement was over substance, not character or patriotism.
In fact, Mr. Obama couched his criticism of Mr. McCain with praise for serving his country “with bravery and distinction,” saying, “We owe him our gratitude and respect.” Nor did Mr. Obama question his opponent’s devotion to America. “I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain,” Mr. Obama told nearly 80,000 supporters gathered at Invesco Field.
And while he made the case that Mr. Bush had made a mess of the economy and overseas wars, problems he said that Mr. McCain would perpetuate, Mr. Obama also presented an essentially positive prescription as the crowd waved “CHANGE” signs and chanted “Yes, we can.”
The tale of these two speeches, from 2008 to 2020, is for Mr. Obama the story of the last dozen years, a personal journey from a moment when America was choosing a way forward to a moment when he contends the question is whether America will still be America.