Barack Obama needed to bring Democrats together tonight at the DNC. Tim Kaine had a far more difficult task: Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential pick needed to prove he can be trusted, has the capacity to inspire, and can effectively take on Donald Trump.
In the end, Obama and Kaine both won raucous cheers and applause. At one point during the president’s speech, someone in the crowd cried out: “Four more years!” Another screamed: “I love you!” And despite earlier threats of revolt from Bernie Sanders supporters, Kaine made it through his speech without major incident. He came across as dedicated to the cause, and ready to fight, hitting high notes along the way. In all, the evening showed a party that seemed far more willing to come together than it did when the convention began.
When Obama took the stage, he argued that the election is not really about ideology or partisan politics. “This is a more fundamental choice about who we are as a people,” he argued. He offered an uplifting message in contrast to Donald Trump’s dark vision of America. “I am more optimistic about America than ever before,” he said.
But he also acknowledged the suffering across the country. He was quick to note the “real anxieties” of many Americans. “There are pockets of America that never recovered from factory closures,” he said, “men who took pride in hard work and providing for their families who now feel forgotten.” The contrast highlighted a challenge for Democrats: The party is working to offer voters are more inspiring vision of America, but as it does, Democrats must be careful not to seem blind to voter concern.
Much of Obama’s speech boiled down to an idea the Clinton campaign has often pushed: America is better than this. He accused Trump of “selling the American people short,” declaring that “we are not a fragile or frightful people.” In one particularly memorable line, Obama said: “The American Dream is something no wall will ever contain.”
The president is uniquely situated to make the case that former rivals can embrace Clinton, and he did so convincingly. He recalled asking Clinton to serve in his administration after they faced off during the primary. “She knew that what was at stake was bigger than either of us,” he said, continuing the theme of transcending division. Later on, Obama gave a nod to Sanders supporters. “We all need to be as vocal and as organized and as persistent as Bernie Sanders’ supporters have been,” he said. But he also chided the far-left, saying that Clinton has been “caricatured by the right and by some folks on the left.” He warned the crowd: “You can’t afford to stay home just because she might not align with you on every issue,” insisting that “democracy isn’t a spectator sport.”
Obama is poised to be the most powerful advocate for Clinton on the campaign trail—he demonstrated that tonight. But there was also poignancy to the speech. As much as it was a chance for Obama to vouch for Clinton, it was also a kind of goodbye. The president’s description of what he has achieved in office is as much a reminder that he will soon depart the Oval Office to make way for a successor as anything else. It was a farewell tour delivered to an adoring audience. “I love you back,” the president told the crowd as he took the stage to wild applause.
Yet even if Obama is on his way out, the evening was also a reminder that if Clinton is elected, his legacy will live on. At the end of his speech, Clinton herself took the stage, the two stood side-by-side as they waved and surveyed the arena.
For Kaine, the night was a chance to introduce himself to Americans. It was a test he passed. Kaine did his best to show where he comes from. He talked about how his dad “ran a union ironworking shop” where he and his brothers “pitched in to work during summers and on weekends.” He spoke about his faith: “This journey that I’ve told you about has convinced me that God has created in this country a beautiful and rich tapestry, an incredible cultural diversity that succeeds when we embrace everybody in love, and battle back against the forces, the dark forces of division.”
There were a few tense moments. Many Bernie Sanders supporters view Kaine as a slap in the face to progressives who would have preferred to see someone like Elizabeth Warren serving as second-in-command. At one point, Kaine called Sanders a “great democratic leader,” a line that won cheers, but also created a disturbance in the crowd, which grew noisy and raucous, perhaps because Sanders supporters viewed the remark as pandering. Attempting to regain control, he quickly added: “We all should feel the Bern, and we all should not want to get Berned by the other guy!”
Still, Kaine didn’t appear overly concerned over a trust deficit on the left. He seemed to spend nearly as much time extending an olive branch to moderates and Republicans as progressives. Early on in his remarks, he said: “Any party that would nominate Donald Trump for president has moved too far away from [the] party of Lincoln … If any of you are looking for that party of Lincoln, we’ve got a home for you right here in the Democratic Party.”
In all, Kaine’s plainspoken style came across as humble and authentic, if not exactly awe-inspiring. “Can I be honest with you about something? I never expected to be here,” he said as he formally accepted the VP nomination. At the same time, his ability to speak Spanish, and rail against Donald Trump amped up the audience. He called Clinton “lista,” a word that he said means in Spanish “prepared, battle tested, it means rock-solid, up for anything, never backing down.”
There were signs of a divided party. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was interrupted during his speech by angry chants of “no more war!” The confrontation was emblematic of the fact that many Democrats fear Clinton is far too interventionist when it comes to foreign policy. As Kaine and Obama spoke, some delegates held up anti-TPP signs in opposition to the trade policy the president has pushed.
Beyond the headlining speeches, speakers prosecuted the case against Trump more aggressively than previous nights. Vice President Joe Biden made an impassioned case against the Republican Party’s nominee. “We cannot elect a man … who seeks to sow division in America for his own gain and disorder around the world. A man who confuses bluster for strength,” Biden said. “We’ve had candidates who attempt to get elected by appealing to our fears, but they never succeed. We never bow. We never bend. We never break. We endure. We overcome, and we always, always, always move forward.” Martin O’Malley put it another way: “I say to hell with Trump’s American nightmare. We believe in the American dream.” The crowd had no trouble agreeing on that.