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Obama’s Democratic convention speech showed he knows his legacy is on the line

Hillary Clinton is the heavy favorite be elected president in November. If she makes it to the White House, it will confirm Barack Obama’s status as one of the most consequential presidents in American history. Obama engineered a recovery from recession that, though slow to begin, is gaining strength in its seventh year rather than slowing. He’s tackled climate change in an unprecedented way, brought health insurance to an unprecedented number of Americans even while slowing the growth of health care costs, and taken crucial steps to cut the financial sector down to size.

New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, reflecting on the rapturous reception Michelle Obama’s speech received on Monday, reflected that "as she has become a figure of admiration and esteem, almost befitting a national hero, so, too, one day will he."

That’s almost certainly true — if Clinton wins, she will be able to protect much of Obama’s work and expand upon it.

Obama spoke tonight in an unusually prominent slot for an eighth-year precedent — more of an anchor than the party’s vice presidential nominee. This is certainly because he’s one of this generation’s greatest orators, but it is also because he is truly the anchor to the Democratic party and where it stands today.

Tonight, he spoke with an unusual urgency for a man with nothing left to run for. "I think it is fair to say that this is not your typical election," he said, "it is not just a choice between parties or policies, the usual debates between left and right." This year, Americans face "a more fundamental choice about who we are as a people and whether we stay true to this great American experience and government."

That’s an extraordinary thing for a politician to say. Not just that the election is important. But that it’s actually more important than the races he directly participated in.

And he did it for a reason. Obama has a legacy to protect, but it’s not one he can protect by taking victory laps. If Clinton loses — especially to Donald Trump — that legacy could be essentially erased.

Today’s Democratic Party is weak

Obama has achieved much more than the typical president. But in his eight year in office, he also leaves a political party that’s in an unusually weak state.

Republicans currently enjoy unified three-branch control of government in 25 states — including in places like Wisconsin and Michigan that aren’t remotely swing states in national politics — Democrats have only seven. There are Republican governors in blue states like Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Maine, and New Jersey. Republicans run both houses of the state legislature in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, and control the state senates of Washington and New York. There is nothing comparable for Democrats in red country.

Republicans have a majority in the Senate, of course, and also the largest House majority they’ve had for many decades. Obama recognizes this, reminding the party faithful that "we all need to get out and vote for Democrats up and down the ticket."

And, indeed, Democrats will likely improve on these rather dismal numbers in November. But the scenario where they do that is almost certainly the scenario where Clinton beats Trump. If she falters and loses, downballot Democrats will almost certainly lose too. The party won’t be irreparably doomed, but it will have been pushed down to a low ebb.

Republicans are unchastened

The downballot strength of the GOP matters because it helps explain why today’s Republicans are unchastened by defeat. Oftentimes a party that loses a few elections in a row feels compelled to moderate itself in order to win or govern. That leads to presidents like Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, or Bill Clinton whose policies in many ways simply confirmed the legacy of the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Reagan Revolution.

But today’s GOP is strong enough that despite losing twice to Obama (and losing the presidential popular vote in three of the four elections before that), they remain as militant as ever.

Today’s Republican Party is committed to:

  • Rollback of all of Obama’s new financial regulations.
  • Rollback of all of Obama’s new environmental regulations.
  • Repeal of his signature health care law.
  • Reducing federal taxes down to a level below where they were when he took office.
  • Block-granting Medicaid and food stamps in a way that would put them on the same road to extinction that made welfare reform into a failure.

There is every reason to believe that an ideologically emboldened Republican Party congressional majority would, in fact, do these things and that a newly elected Donald Trump would work with them to make it happen. Republicans, if they win in November, will not have won by moderating their positions relative. If anything, they’ve moved to the right since the Bush years.

Obama arrived at a time when liberals were insecure

But beyond his policy accomplishments, Obama’s profile in national politics has always been about a distinctive vision of national politics.

Twelve years ago, at a time when liberals were scared and defensive about issues of national identity, Obama delivered a speech that tackled the subject both squarely and slyly. It was nominally a speech about national unity between the red states and the blue states, but in reality the very pluralism and ecumenism of Obama's vision of America was itself a partisan statement. For the red/blue divide posits a false symmetry. There isn't — and wasn't — a single, unitary Blue America facing off against the Red Team, with red and blue together reflecting diversity. Instead, diversity and pluralism is the signal quality of the blue vision of America — it's the place where you find the Muslims and the Jews and the atheists, the immigrants and the descendants of slaves.

I was in the audience that day, and it immediately electrified the room because the idea it expressed was an idea that the delegates nearly and dearly hoped was true but weren’t quite willing to let themselves believe.

It was stirring and provocative — and largely stirring because it was provocative. Liberals would have liked to believe that Obama was right and theirs was the real, true America. But it wasn't yet clear that they had the audacity to believe it.

Wednesday night, Obama returned to these themes:

We are not a fragile or frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order. We don’t look to be ruled. Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago; We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that together, We, the People, can form a more perfect union.

That’s who we are. That’s our birthright – the capacity to shape our own destiny. That’s what drove patriots to choose revolution over tyranny and our GIs to liberate a continent. It’s what gave women the courage to reach for the ballot, and marchers to cross a bridge in Selma, and workers to organize and fight for better wages.

America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s always been about what can be achieved by us, together, through the hard, slow, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government.

The crowd loved them again. But this time not hopefully, but triumphantly. Obama proved in 2008 and again in 2012 that he was right way back then in 2004.

Donald Trump would unravel Obama’s America

In this sense, Trump is not just a challenge to Obama’s legacy but a directed and pointed refutation of it.

Obama says "the worry black parents feel when their son leaves the house isn’t so different than what a brave cop’s family feels when he puts on the blue and goes to work."

His thesis is that with reflection and compassion, we can understand each other and overcome problems. Trumpism is the exact opposite of that. He sees a world that is zero-sum in every way, from foreign trade to domestic policing, and security can only be achieved through granting impunity to the agents of state violence.

Trump’s promise to "make America great again" carries the not-at-all subtle implication that the new American identity Obama forged is fundamentally fraudulent. Many conservative intellectuals have criticized Trump for replacing conservative ideas with white identity politics. But Trump is, not coincidentally, doing considerably better than John McCain or Mitt Romney with whites who don’t have a college degree. They’ve flocked to Trump’s banner because virtually alone among the 2016 Republican field, Trump was eager to fight back against Obama’s vision of pluralistic America. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and even Ted Cruz all in their somewhat different ways wanted to market right-of-center policies to Obama’s America.

Trump is promising to erase it.

To have a sitting president so actively engaged in a general election campaign is historically unusual, in part because the confluence of circumstances that make it possible is itself unusual. But for Obama, it’s also an opportunity. The 2016 election is many things, but it’s clearly not a referendum on the relative merits of the dual visions for tax reform put forth by the two candidates.

It’s a referendum on Obama’s vision of America. He describes it as founded in "bonds of affection" and a "common creed" in which Americans "don’t fear the future; we shape it embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own."

If Clinton wins, he’ll be proven right and he’ll go down in history as a politician who effected a profound transformation in the country’s public policies and self-understanding. But if he loses, it will all wash away as a strange anomaly. Nobody understands that better than Obama himself, and that’s why nobody will work harder to put Clinton in the White House.