Politics

Barack Obama Dials the Volume Down and the Urgency Up

Barack Obama ignited his political career at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where he linked his story, of growing up as a biracial “skinny kid with a funny name,” to America’s.

On the third night of the 2020 D.N.C., as he sounded an alarm not just about his legacy but about the health of democracy, his platform could hardly have been bigger. Or smaller.

He stood in the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia — alone, like nearly every convention speaker in the pandemic. There were no cheers, no placards, no responses to his calls. There was just the same speaker, older, sadder, but trying to convince his audience that, if they acted urgently, his 2004 faith could still be borne out.

It was a Barack Obama quieter and louder than we had heard before. The audacity of hope was tempered by the veracity of the stakes.

This year’s convention, given the restrictions of the pandemic, has raised the challenge: How do you electrify an empty room? The speakers and producers have tried virtual applause, talk-show intimacy and eclectic locations.

Mr. Obama’s answer was to use the silence as his amplifier. Watching Mr. Obama adapt his soaring oratorical style to the chill of a museum room was like watching a veteran arena act play an acoustic set. Obama, unplugged.

Gone was the ringing peroration and crescendo. Instead, he used the negative space and stillness as much as the words.

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He deployed micro-pauses for urgency and for emphasis: “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job [pause] because he can’t.” The sentence hung between “job” and “because” like an ax at the top of its arc, just before the blow.

It was an expert example of what does and doesn’t work in this constricted environment. Deep emotion, yes; canned zingers, not as much. Sincerity, not snark. It draws on the skill set for giving a fireside chat — or a eulogy.

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Presidency Is ‘One More Reality Show’ to Trump, Obama Says

Barack Obama criticized President Trump in his comments at the Democratic National Convention, saying Mr. Trump had shown “no interest” in using the office to help anyone but “himself and his friends.”

Tonight I want to talk as plainly as I can about the stakes in this election — because what we do these next 76 days will echo through generations to come. I have sat in the Oval Office with both of the men who are running for president. I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies. 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. For close to four years now, he has shown no interest in putting in the work, no interest in finding common ground, no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends, no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves. Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job, because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe. This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down, if that’s what it takes for them to win. So we have to get busy building it up — by pouring all our efforts into these 76 days and by voting like never before: for Joe and Kamala and candidates up and down the ticket, so that we leave no doubt about what this country that we love stands for.

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Barack Obama criticized President Trump in his comments at the Democratic National Convention, saying Mr. Trump had shown “no interest” in using the office to help anyone but “himself and his friends.”CreditCredit…Democratic National Convention

Was that what Mr. Obama was doing? He stood in front of an exhibition wall, the words of the Constitution in script behind him, along with a spray of white and purple flowers. It looked, frankly, like it could have been a funeral, though his words, urging his listeners not to give in to cynicism, hoped for a resurrection.

We’ve seen Mr. Obama play to coliseums and teeming outdoor parks, but we’ve also seen him work in quiet. His speech after the 2015 church massacre by a racist shooter in Charleston, S.C., is memorable for his singing “Amazing Grace,” but just as effective was his pause before he began the hymn, readying to summon life from a place of death.

Maybe realizing the power of the words you don’t say, trusting in the response you don’t hear, is something that comes with sad experience. Mr. Obama was sober on Wednesday night, his eyes seeming rimmed with emotion, but he never came across as tentative or awkward. It was as if he were recording a dispatch just for your ears: Help us, America, you’re our only hope.

The message, evidently, was loud enough. Even as Mr. Obama condemned his successor for treating the presidency as a “reality show” to sate his urges for attention and combat, President Trump seemed to prove his point with a burst of all-caps ragetweeting:

The night’s other speeches, which emphasized the party’s diversity and female leaders as it prepared to nominate a woman of color as vice president, used isolation in different settings.

The former representative Gabby Giffords, nearly killed in a 2011 assassination attempt, spoke haltingly and potently on gun violence. Hillary Clinton, the 2016 nominee, appeared from her living room. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts talked in an empty early childhood education center, seeming to draw on her classroom experience to connect with the imagined listener.

The final speaker of the night, Senator Kamala Harris, also has a talent for soaring speeches to crowds, and she was making history just as Mr. Obama did in 2008. You could imagine her speech, which combined sharp attacks with a vision of an inclusive future, delivered to a big, celebratory crowd.

There couldn’t be one. But whoever staged the speech set it as if they didn’t realize that, having the nominee address an auditorium mostly empty except for a few journalists and a video grid of teleconferenced-in supporters. You could feel the gaps where laughter and cheers should have been, as if watching the soundcheck run-through.

ImageOn Wednesday night, Senator Kamala Harris accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president in a mostly empty auditorium.
Credit…Olivier Douliery/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Like many aspects of the pandemic, it was hardly fair. Ms. Harris is charismatic in TV interviews, and you could imagine her delivering more close-focus, one-to-one remarks, as she did in a surprise appearance at the beginning of the night. But there are reasons to want to invest a rising party leader with the same stature as her mostly white, male predecessors, on the same sort of stage.

Instead, Ms. Harris had to supply the fire and glow herself. Some of the most potent moments recalled, intentionally or not, what was absent. Particularly striking was the image of Ms. Harris speaking to a field of lonely sign posts with the names of states, emptiness where the delegates should have been.

It was a ghostly reminder of our reality. The ending, with her and the nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., joined by their spouses and waving to the video screen and the idea of a crowd in the auditorium, was surreal.

But someone was listening. Mr. Trump awarded her speech the coveted triple-question-mark tweet, bringing up her attacks on Mr. Biden during the primary: “DIDN’T SHE SAY HE WAS INCOMPETENT???”

It may not be the ovation Ms. Harris imagined. But in these times, it might be the best evidence that her speech made it across the void.

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