When Barack Obama walked onto the stage at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, he stopped, turned, and looked at the upper deck of the Wells Fargo Center. One last time, Obama was appreciating the size of the room. This was his big goodbye. But it was also his shot at tackling a complicated task: the selling of Hillary Clinton.
Obama seemed happy, loose. “I love you back!” he told the audience. All night, Democratic speakers had been interrupted by pleas for them to be more like Bernie Sanders: “No more war!” Obama was interrupted by pleas to stay around: “Four more years!” “Don’t leave us!” Obama ignored them and marched forward.
He was selling a vision of Hillary Clinton. “Hillary’s been in the room,” he said. “She knows what’s at stake.” Clinton, he added, “listens.” She’s “tough” and “respected around the world.” She was pitched as an admixture of “heart” and “tenacity.” And — here Obama echoed Bill Clinton from the night before — “she never, ever quits.”
In Cleveland, there was a joke that even Donald Trump’s family members couldn’t come up with a single humanizing anecdote about him. The RNC’s big-screen documentaries quickly pivoted from photos of Young Donald to the fabulous properties he’d built around the world. If Trump had a proper Facebook page, you almost think you wouldn’t find photos of his grandkids but photos of his buildings.
Surprisingly, Democrats in Philadelphia have had a similar problem. You heard testaments to Clinton’s unglamorous toil behind the scenes, her menschiness. But it was tough to find a speaker talking about her as a living, breathing person. It’s as if the task of humanizing Clinton after nearly 40 years of public life has proved too difficult, and so the speakers have taken to reeling off her accomplishments. The RNC was the Fear and Loathing Convention. The DNC is different. It is the Résumé Convention.
The candidates serve as their conventions’ showrunners. The RNC was at turns pious (an usher wouldn’t let anyone into the arena during a prayer) and thirsty for vengeance. “Lock her up!” the crowd cheered when Chris Christie spoke.
The Democratic Convention is a mellower, more soothing place. Inside the Wells Fargo Center, ushers wear yellow T-shirts with “ASK ME” printed on the back. There is an all-gender restroom on the upper level. When vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine began reeling off Trump’s business misdeeds Wednesday, a chant of “Lock him up!” started in the balcony. It was quickly shushed by other delegates. We can’t have that here.
The Democrats began the prime-time hours Wednesday night talking about gun violence. We met the daughter of the principal murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the mother of a son murdered at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Angela Bassett came out to introduce survivors of the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.
Republicans conjured the specter of gun violence to show a country gone down the tubes. The Democrats reminded us of bloodshed to show it could be overpowered by love. I’ll forever remember former congresswoman Gabby Giffords — who was maimed by a would-be assassin in 2011 — unsteadily walking to the podium, announcing her support for “Madame President,” and pumping her fist. I’ll remember Polly Sheppard from Emanuel Church declaring, “I chose love.” I’ll remember — if somewhat less solemnly — “the brightest voices of Broadway” singing “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” The DNC had the uplift of the Tonys.
When Sharon Belkofer, a self-described “sweet little old lady” from Ohio, came out to introduce Obama, she let us know that the president hugged her when she lost her son in Afghanistan. “I wish every American could hug President Obama,” she said. At that point, every Democrat would have settled for the delegate next to them.
There were more name speakers at the DNC on Wednesday than there were in the entire run of the RNC. (Example: Sigourney Weaver introducing a video from James Cameron was a mere footnote.) Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a full-on attack on Trump’s virtues as an (alleged) billionaire with the contempt only a richer guy could muster.
At first, Kaine’s Mayberry routine seemed less polished than Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence’s. Kaine got more traction with the audience when he smilingly tore into Trump, even if his Trump impression lacked a certain panache. Kaine found a way to translate Clinton’s résumé into Spanish: “Hillary Clinton is lista” — ready.
Before Joe Biden spoke, we watched a clip of his famous speech to military families whose loved ones were killed in action. Biden — who over the decades has lost his first wife, his daughter, and, last year, his son Beau — told the military families he could lecture them only about the path that grief would take. Someday, he said, when they thought of the dead, they’d smile. On Wednesday night, the theme from Rocky played, and Biden power-jogged to the podium. The image was clear: Biden was an emotionally beleaguered, broken man who always got up to fight a few more rounds.
In the hall, as on Twitter, Democrats indulged in the fantasy that Biden was the nominee. Here was a mockable-but-human figure — one who’d take the fight for the middle class directly to Trump. (“He’s trying to tell us he cares about the middle class. Give me a break — that’s a bunch of malarkey.” The last sentence was as contemptuous as it gets at the DNC.)
Biden briefly indulged the fantasy. Then he stumped for Clinton. “Everybody knows she’s smart,” he said. “Everybody knows she’s tough. But I know what she’s passionate about. I know Hillary.”
Biden reported that he and Clinton had breakfast once a week when she was secretary of state. But what happened at those breakfasts? What is it to like to sit across the table from her? What anecdote could illustrate Clinton’s tireless work instead of just saying she was a tireless worker?
Again, Biden repeated lines from the résumé. “Hillary understands,” he said. “Hillary gets it.” If Clinton becomes president, it will “change [the] lives” of a nation’s “daughters and granddaughters.” The thrust of his Clinton testimonial ran three paragraphs in the text and was the least convincing part of his speech.
At one point, Biden gripped the podium and spoke quietly. It was a theatrical trick, meant to make the audience lean forward in their seats. But those of us in the arena could barely hear Biden. In what was surely a first at the DNC since the actual soapbox went out of style, someone in the hall yelled, “Louder!” and everybody broke up laughing.
When Obama entered, the crowd was primed. The Democrats’ love for Clinton is hedged; their love for Obama is unbound.
The Sanders diehards were still in the arena, holding up signs about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and interrupting several speeches, including the president’s. Leon Panetta, the former secretary of defense, seemed rattled by the chants. (It’s also a Democratic value that protesters should be heard rather than hustled off by cops, as they were at the RNC.)
Obama talked through the chants, hardly seeming to notice them. His case for Clinton was overtly feminist. He referenced their tough fight in the 2008 primaries. “She was doing everything I was doing,” he said, “but just like Ginger Rogers, it was backwards in heels.” It was not only a nod to former Texas governor Ann Richards’s old convention line but an ad-lib that wasn’t in the prepared text.
Obama was brilliant at countering Trump’s campaign of fear. He realized that in a “change election” he couldn’t just say, “Actually, crime and immigration aren’t really that bad.” So he grabbed the conservative mantle of American greatness and snarked at Trump’s neo-despotism: “We don’t look to be ruled.”
A speech that argues for a particular vision of America, attacks Trump, says goodbye, and endorses Clinton is tricky to pull off. Obama hit every point. But you couldn’t help but notice the first three parts were more vivid than the fourth. Obama said, “That’s why I can say with confidence there has never been a man or a woman — not me, not Bill, nobody — more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.” It was at that point that Obama went beyond a résumé and basically wrote a letter of recommendation.
While Obama was lapping up applause, Clinton appeared from stage left. They hugged, gently swaying back and forth. Suddenly, Team Clinton’s gambit made sense. The way to personalize Clinton is to have her embrace Obama — the embrace that Al Gore famously declined to give Clinton’s husband four elections ago. A hug would stand in for the fleshed-out human portrait, just as Obama’s magnetic personality would stand in for Hillary’s. As they left the stage Wednesday, Obama’s and Clinton’s arms were so tightly linked that they gently nudged the American flag.