Obama: “We Don’t Fear the Future—We Shape It”
There’s not much overlap between the America that President Obama described on stage at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night and the one Donald Trump outlined in Cleveland last week.
The country Trump painted during his turn in the spotlight is clouded in corruption, crime, and ever-present threats. In that version, America is a place where terrorists are always at the doorstep, where you’ll never find a job, where immigrants pose a threat to public safety, where the whole world is the enemy. This America has never endured such darkness. It’s little wonder, then, that Trump promises to restore America to what it once was—some better past when it was strong, proud, safe, and great. In his slogan “Make America Great Again,” the most important word is “again.”
The America that Obama depicted was the emotional, spiritual, and directional opposite. Where Trump described a national nightmare, President Obama articulated the American Dream. Where Trump’s words seared, Obama’s soared. Where Trump described the past as a blueprint, Obama urged the audience to embrace change.
The President described a country he sees as resilient and powerful, a country stronger economically today than when he took office eight years ago in the throes of the Great Recession. It’s a country, he said, whose people are not “fragile or frightful” and “don’t look to be ruled,” digs at Trump’s convention rhetoric in which he portrayed himself alone as the solution to the country’s many ills. Obama, by contrast, claimed America today is still as full of hope as it was when he first stood on the Democratic National Convention stage back in 2004, his breakthrough on the national stage that would propel him to the presidency four years later. Obama said America is already strong, proud, safe, and great, and will only become more so over time. That is, he said, if the country elects Hillary Clinton for president.
“That’s America,” President Obama said. “We don’t fear the future; we shape it.”
Fighting the Future
Despite all the infighting between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Donald Trump and the entire Republican party, the central battle of this election cycle is ultimately a battle between sensibilities. On the one side is the belief that America can salvage itself by looking to the past. On the other is the sense that the arc of American progress is still bending toward a better future, one in which accepting the risks will yield greater benefits. These conflicting worldviews manifest themselves in the debates over trade and globalization, immigration and openness.
Where Americans come down on these issues reflect which country—Trump’s or Obama’s—they believe they wake up in each morning. Inside the Wells Fargo Center, unsurprisingly, Democratic delegates roared for the version presented by Obama in what was likely the last major speech of his presidency.
Obama wasn’t the only one peddling this future-facing posture Wednesday night. It was there in the celebrity-studded singalong to “what the world needs now/is love sweet love,” after which the audience broke into chants of “Love trumps hate.” And it was all over Vice President Joe Biden’s address, in which he described an America that’s home to “the finest fighting force” and “the largest economy” in the world. It’s a country, he said, where appealing to voters’ fears doesn’t work. “We do not scare easily,” he said.
Trump was quick to scoff at Democrats’ optimism.
Our country does not feel ‘great already’ to the millions of wonderful people living in poverty, violence and despair.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 28, 2016
And in the estimation of many, he’s right. The darkness of this election cycle hasn’t just been a function of its bleak rhetoric. Since primary campaigning began in earnest last spring, the world has endured tragedy after tragedy, from Paris to San Bernardino to Orlando to Dallas. It’s no wonder Trump’s promise to bring “law and order” to the country and the world appeals to wide swaths of the electorate. For many, Trump’s America looks closer to the one they live in.
Democrats—successfully or not, depending on whose Twitter timeline you’re reading—urged voters fearful of the world’s dangers and uncertainties not to give into despair. “We are America, second to none, and we own the finish line,” Biden said.
Whether you believe that’s profound or platitudinous, for one night during a week, month, and year of the ugliest political eye-gouging, Obama and Biden offered the country a rare helping of optimism. You might buy it or not, but it’s a reminder that politics doesn’t always have to alienate. It can also inspire—even if your America happens to be on the other side of the aisle.
The GOP offered a vision of doom, despair, and division. Tonight the President I think divides us offered optimism. I hate this year.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) July 28, 2016