Former President Barack Obama took aim at his successor’s work in the White House during a passionate speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
Speaking live from Philadelphia, Obama harshly criticized President Donald Trump for his policies and rhetoric during his time in office and warned voters that his administration would “tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes for them to win.” Obama noted that he hoped that Trump would show some interest in taking the job seriously, but he did not.
“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,” Obama said.
Obama’s scathing criticism of Trump breaks with the longstanding tradition of former presidents not publicly speaking out against their successors.
The 44th president pointed out the “consequences” of Trump’s failures: 170,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, millions of jobs lost and “our worst impulses unleashed.”
Obama touted former Vice President Joe Biden’s record, particularly with the 2009 H1N1 flu and 2014 Ebola outbreaks, and the economy. He also emphasized Biden’s empathy, particularly with military members.
He also praised Sen. Kamala Harris’s long career and said she, too, would help steer the country in the right direction.
“Joe and Kamala will restore our standing in the world,” he said.
Obama continued to take digs at the current administration and its attacks on voting rights and the free press. He urged voters to head to the polls.
“This president and those in power, those who benefit from keeping things the way they are, they are counting on your cynicism,” Obama said. “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 does not matter. That is how they win.”
Trump fired back at Obama on Twitter repeating claims, in all caps, that Obama spied on him and was caught. Biden quote tweeted Trump, repeated Obama’s words, “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job, because he can’t.”
Read Obama’s full speech below:
Good evening, everybody. As you’ve seen by now, this isn’t a normal convention. It’s not a normal time. So 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’m in Philadelphia where our constitution was drafted and signed. It wasn’t a perfect document. It allowed for the inhumanity of slavery and failed to guarantee women and even men who didn’t own property the right to participate in the political process. But embedded in this document was a north star that would guide future generations, a system of representative government, a democracy to which we could better realize our highest ideals. Through civil war and bitter struggles, we improved this constitution to include the voices of those who had once been left out.
And gradually, we made this country more just and more equal and more free. The one constitutional office elected by all of the people is the presidency. So at a minimum, we should expect a president to feel a sense of responsibility for the safety and welfare of all 330 million of us, regardless of what we look like, how we worship, who we love, how much money we have, or who we voted for.
But we should also expect a president to be the custodian of this democracy. We should expect that regardless of ego, ambition or political beliefs the president will preserve, protect and defend the freedoms and ideals that so many Americans marched for, went to jail for, fought for and died for. 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 4 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. One hundred seventy thousand Americans dead.
Millions of jobs gone. While those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished and our democratic institutions threatened like never before. Now, I know that in times as polarized as these, most of you have already made up your mind. But maybe you’re still not sure which candidate you will vote for or whether you will vote at all.
Maybe you are tired of the direction we’re headed, but you can’t see a better path yet or you just don’t know enough about the person who wants to lead us there. So let me tell you about my friend, Joe Biden. Twelve years ago, when I began my search for vice president, I didn’t know I would end up finding a brother. Joe and I come from different places, different generations, but what I quickly came to admire about Joe Biden is his resilience, born of too much struggle. His empathy, born of too much grief.
Joe is a man who learned early on to treat every person he meets with respect and dignity, living by the words his parents taught him. No one is better than you, Joe. But you’re better than nobody. That empathy, that decency, the belief that everybody counts, that’s who Joe is. When he talks with someone who has lost their job, Joe remembers the night his father sat him down to say that he had lost his.
When Joe listens to a parent who is trying to hold it all together right now, he does it as a single dad who took the train back to Wilmington each and every night so he could tuck his kids into bed.
When he meets with military families who have lost their hero, he does it as a kindred spirit, the parent of an American soldier, somebody whose faith has endured the hardest loss there is. For eight years, Joe was the last one in the room whenever I faced a big decision. He made me a better president. And he’s got the character and the experience to make us a better country.
And in my friend Kamala Harris, he’s chosen an ideal partner who is more than prepared for the job, someone who knows what it’s like to overcome barriers and who has made a career fighting to help others live out their own American dream. Along with the experience needed to get things done, Joe and Kamala have concrete policies that will turn their vision of a better, fairer, stronger country into a reality.
They will get this pandemic under control, like Joe did when he helped me manage H1N1 and prevent an Ebola outbreak from reaching our shores. They will expand health care to more Americans like Joe and I did ten years ago when he helped craft the affordable care act and nail down the votes to make it the law. They’ll rescue the economy, like Joe helped me do after the great recession. I asked him to manage the recovery act, which jump-started the longest stretch of job growth in history. And he sees this moment now not as a chance to get back to where we were, but to make long overdue changes so that our economy actually makes life a little easier for everybody, whether it’s the waitress trying to raise a kid on her own, or the shift worker always on the edge of getting laid off, or the student figuring out how to pay for next semester’s classes.
Joe and Kamala will restore our standing in the world. And as we have learned from this pandemic, that matters. Joe knows the world, and the world knows him. He knows that our true strength comes from setting an example that the world wants to follow, a nation that stands with democracy, not dictators. A nation that can inspire and mobilize others to overcome threats like climate change and terrorism, poverty and disease.
But more than anything, what I know about Joe, what I know about Kamala is that they actually care about every American. And that they care deeply about this democracy. They believe that in a democracy the right to vote is sacred, and we should be making it easier for people to cast their ballots, not harder.
They believe that no one including the president is above the law. And that no public official, including the president, should use their office to enrich themselves or their supporters. They understand that in this democracy, the commander in chief does not use the men and women of our military who are willing to risk everything to protect our nation as political props to deploy against peaceful protesters on our own soil.
They understand that political opponents aren’t un-American just because they disagree with you. A free press isn’t the enemy but the way we hold officials accountable. That our ability to work together to solve big problems like a pandemic depend on a fidelity to facts and science and logic and not just making stuff up. None of this should be controversial.
These shouldn’t be Republican principles or democratic principles. They are American principles. But at this moment, this president and those who enable him have shown they don’t believe in these things. Tonight, I’m asking you to believe in Joe and Kamala’s ability to lead this country out these dark times and build it back better. But here’s the thing. 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. So ,I’m also asking you to believe in your own ability, to embrace your own responsibility as citizens, to make sure that the basic tenants of our democracy endure.
Because that’s what’s at stake right now. Our democracy. Look, I understand why a lot of Americans are down on government.
The way the rules have been set up and abused in congress make it easier for special interests to stop progress than to make progress. Believe me, I know it. I understand why a white factory worker who has seen his wages cut or his job shipped overseas might feel like the government no longer looks out for him and why a black mom might feel like it never looked out for her at all. I understand why a new immigrant might look around this country and wonder whether there is still a place for him here.
Why a young person might look at politics right now, the circus of it all, the meanness and the lies and conspiracy theories and think, what is the point? Well, here’s the point. This president and those in power, those who benefit from keeping things the way they are, they are counting on your cynicism.
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 does not matter. That is how they win. That is 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 the 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. And we cannot let that happen. Do not let them take away your power. Do not let them take away your democracy.
Make a plan right now for how you are going to get involved and vote. Do it as early as you can and tell your family and friends how they can vote, too. Do what Americans have done for over two centuries when faced with even tougher times than this. All those quiet heroes who found the courage to keep marching, keep pushing in the face of hardship and injustice.
Last month we lost a giant of American democracy in John Lewis. And some years ago I sat down with John and a few remaining leaders of the early civil rights movement. One of them told me he never imagined he’d walk into the white house and see a president who looked like his grandson. And then he told me that he had looked it up.
And it turned out that on the very day that I was born he was marching into a jail cell trying to end Jim Crow segregation in the south. What we do echoes through generations. Whatever our backgrounds, we are all the children of Americans who fought the good fight. The great grandparents working in fire traps and sweatshops without rights or representation. Farmers losing their dreams to dust. Irish and Italians and Asians and Latinos told, go back where you come from.
Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Sikhs made to feel suspect for the way they worshipped. Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged, spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters, beaten for trying to vote. If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work and could not work, it was those Americans, our ancestors.
They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives. They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from them then. And, yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and they said somehow, some way we are going to make this work.
We are going to bring those words in our founding documents to life. I have seen that same spirit rising these past few years. Folks of every age and background who packed city centers and airports and rural roads so that families wouldn’t be separated, so that another classroom wouldn’t get shot up, so that our kids won’t grow up on an uninhabitable planet.
Americans of all races joining together to declare in the face of injustice and brutality at the hands of the state that black lives matter no more but no less. So that no child in this country feels the continuing sting of racism. To the young people who led us this summer, telling us we need to be better, in so many ways, you are this country’s dreams fulfilled. Earlier generations had to be persuaded that everyone has equal worth.
For you it’s a given, a conviction. And what I want you to know is that for all its messiness and frustrations, your system of self-government can be harnessed to help you realize those convictions for all of us. You can give our democracy new meaning. You can take it to a better place.
You’re the missing ingredient, the ones who will decide whether or not America becomes the country that fully lives up to its creed. That work will continue long after this election. But any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election. 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 today and for all our days to come. Stay safe. God bless.
This report was featured in the Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.
“Start Here” offers a straightforward look at the day’s top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.