“That’s How a Democracy Withers”: Barack Obama Declares a National Emergency

Four years ago, leaning into the twilight of his presidential tenure at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama reminded the country that democracy does not depend on any one person. It doesn’t come from a “self-declared savior”—he meant Donald Trump—”promising that he alone can restore order.”
Wednesday night found Obama in the same city, this time at the Museum of the American Revolution, reiterating the same admonitions and decrying the same threats to democracy posed by the same Donald Trump, now the president, a man who “hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t.” It was as if he were offering America a do-over, a chance to heed the unheeded warnings of 2016, only this time, at the 2020 DNC, his words were starker. “Here’s the thing,” Obama said. “No single American can fix this country alone, not even a president. Democracy was never meant to be transactional—you give me your vote; I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry.”
Obama, who has largely stayed on the sidelines as the 2020 election has unfolded, was blistering in his assessment of Trump. “I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies,” he said. “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.”
Obama enumerated the consequences of Trump’s failures: the mounting death toll of 170,000 during the coronavirus pandemic, the ensuing economic recession, the rich getting richer. He said that Trump expressed “no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.” But he warned, too, that Trump and his Republican compatriots counted on voter cynicism and voter suppression tactics that threaten the country’s democratic institutions.
“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. That’s how they win,” Obama said. “That’s how they get to keep making decisions that affect your life, and the lives of the people you love. That’s how the economy will keep getting skewed to the wealthy and well-connected, how our health systems will let more people fall through the cracks. That’s how a democracy withers until it’s no democracy at all.”
The speech was an expression of the central conceit of Joe Biden’s campaign: that he is the leader of an Obama restoration project. The former president recalled the time Biden helped him “manage H1N1 and prevent an Ebola outbreak from reaching our shores.” He spoke of Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, expanding health care to more people, “like Joe and I did 10 years ago when he helped craft the Affordable Care Act and nail down the votes to make it the law.” He spoke of a Biden administration rescuing the economy, “like Joe helped me do after the Great Recession.”
In a fitting homage, Obama turned to the late Congressman John Lewis. He marveled at a meeting years ago he had with Lewis and the shrinking handful of leaders of the Civil Rights Movement who were still alive. He marveled at the notion that, on the day he was born, one of those leaders had marched into a jail cell in pursuit of ending segregation in the South. “If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans. Our ancestors,” Obama noted. “They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives.”
And yet, generations later, in the aftermath of school shootings and police killings of Black people, Obama said that he saw the same spirit rising as protesters marched in the streets to decry gun violence and declare that Black lives matter. He emphasized that “for all its messiness and frustrations, your system of self-government can be harnessed to help you realize those convictions.” 
“Any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election,” Obama concluded. “This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win.”