Her speech was radically different from the one she gave at Democrats' convention in 2016, which focused above all else on making a positive case for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Instead, Obama's prerecorded speech Monday night painted a picture of a country in chaos under Trump, with a plea for Americans to vote in large numbers if they want to return the country to a semblance of normalcy.
“If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can and they will if we don’t make a change in this election,” Obama said. “If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”
Obama's speech was delivered remotely after party officials asked Democrats not to attend the planned Milwaukee convention in person and moved to a fully digital convention, as the coronavirus pandemic has continued to spread nationally. The pandemic textured much of what Obama said.
“Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head,” Obama said during her speech, which was recorded days before Monday’s start to the convention. “He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.”
In a speech that focused heavily on race relations and conditions during the pandemic, Obama urged voters to turn out to restore empathy to the country for future generations. She pointed toward strained conditions like Black Lives Matter protesters being shot with rubber bullets outside the White House, families struggling during the pandemic, and the faltering economy to urge voters that they need to turn out en masse.
This isn’t the first time that Obama has criticized Trump or the racial tension he helped foster across the country. During her 2016 DNC speech, she alluded to the birtherism conspiracy that Trump fueled during Obama’s presidency.
“We urge them to ignore those who question their father's citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country,” Obama said on stage in 2016.
“How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don't stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”
But in a sharp turn from her 2016 speech, Obama urged voters in Monday’s speech that “going high” wasn’t about just “putting on a smile and saying nice things.” She told Democrats that “going high” required action.
“It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation under God, and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences.”
Her speech did not mention Joe Biden explicitly until it was about halfway through, then noting that while Biden is not perfect — “and he’d be the first to tell you that” — no candidate or president is, and that Biden’s strength is in his “humility.”
“We have to vote for Joe Biden in numbers that cannot be ignored,” she said. “Because right now, folks who know they cannot win fair and square at the ballot box are doing everything they can to stop us from voting.”
Obama pointed to decreased turnout in the 2016 election, when Trump lost the popular vote by 3,000,000 votes but was still able to win by small margins in some districts. Turnout overall in 2016 was down compared to Barack Obama’s first election in 2008, and Black voter turnout declined from 2012.
“This is not the time to withhold our votes in protest or play games with candidates who have no chance of winning,” Obama urged. “We have got to vote like we did in 2008 and 2012.”
“We’ve all been living with the consequences” of voters not turning out in large enough numbers for Clinton in 2016, she said.
“It is up to us to add our voices and our votes to the course of history, echoing heroes like John Lewis, who said, ‘When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something,'” she said. “That is the truest form of empathy: not just feeling, but doing.”
She warned Americans of voter suppression tactics she says are already taking place and alluded to Trump questioning the validity of the election results and his repeated attacks on mail-in voting while urging voters to request their mail-in ballots early and to make plans to vote safely.
“We have got to grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown bag dinner and maybe breakfast too, because we’ve got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to,” Obama said.