Critic's Notebook: Barack Obama Brings Scorching Urgency to Night 3 of Democratic Convention

Barack Obama DNC - Getty - H 2020
DNCC via Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama addresses the virtual Democratic National Convention.

The former president's barn-burning address was the most memorable part of an often substantive and stirring night.

Action was the theme of the 2020 Democratic National Convention's third night — a surprisingly moving and satisfyingly substantive two hours of speeches and biographical montages.

And if the first two nights of the DNC were largely dedicated to wooing centrists and promising national unity (through appearances by the likes of John Kasich and Colin Powell), Wednesday was all about energizing the base, particularly its youth. With an impassioned Kerry Washington as host, the DNC reminded viewers of the issues at stake — gun violence, climate change, immigrants' lives — and, via Barack Obama's barn burner of a speech, reminded us that we don't have the luxury of being too cynical to participate in the political process.

That was the throughline for a poignant and invigorating night. Hillary Clinton, dressed in white to commemorate the centenary of female suffrage (a color also worn by Nancy Pelosi), wryly noted that "Joe and Kamala can win by three million votes and still lose — take it from me." She added, "We need numbers overwhelming so Trump can't sneak or steal his way to victory." She also responded, in a characteristically inelegant line, to all the people who've apparently confessed their regret to her about not bothering to vote in 2016: "This can't be another woulda shoulda coulda election."

Elizabeth Warren, who has taken up the mantle of the nation's foremost female wonk from Clinton, championed the importance of childcare — a longtime issue for the Massachusetts senator that's all the more resonant amid the pandemic — from a closed early childhood education center, calling it the "basic infrastructure of this nation" and "infrastructure for families." She shared an illustrative anecdote about how she couldn't have become the accomplished woman and passionate advocate that she is today without the help of her Aunt Bee, who looked after the children when Warren started her first teaching job.

After assuring the audience that Biden and Harris have a plan for affordable childcare and universal preschool, Warren revealed the flip side of her down-to-earth appeal by mincing no words when stating that "COVID-19 was Trump's biggest test" and that "he failed miserably."

But in a star-studded night, none shone brighter than Barack Obama, who delivered something of a sequel to his wife Michelle's enthusiastically received speech on Day 1. In many ways, he brought together the themes of the night, arguing that the stakes are too high for Americans to give into their understandable pessimism about the state of our politics. Many of the night's speakers alluded to those who had fought for a more equal America before us: the suffragettes, the civil rights leaders (including John Lewis), the immigrant parents and ancestors who found a home in America. In one of several lovely turns of phrase (that's perhaps more wishful thinking than literally true), Obama said, "Whatever our backgrounds, we're all the children of Americans who fought the good fight."

"If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work," he continued, "it was those Americans, our ancestors. … They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth." Michelle Obama was dinged in a few corners of the internet for her "dark" vision of America — one that her husband echoed here — but goddamn, if it doesn't feel good that at least some of our politicians have lived in the America that so many of us live in, that's a little more complicated than baseball and apple pie.

I'll happily admit I went into this third night feeling too jaded for something as institutional as the DNC, and was transported by Obama's speech, especially when he summed up those ancestors' investment in the American project as "we are going to make this work" — and invited us to follow in their paths: "You can give our democracy new meaning." Obama's extraordinary gift lies in making the audacity of hope feel ever audacious.

It helped that he was preceded earlier in the night by videos of several young fighters who seemed like they could become the next Obama. In fact, the montages were actually inspirational, as when Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez narrated a video against gun violence and an unnamed child echoed Greta Thunberg by asking of adults' inaction on climate change, "Why don't you get up and do something?"

The inclusion of Billie Eilish as a musical guest was largely pandering to younger millennials and maybe even Gen Z, though that makes the ultra-brief appearance of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Day 2 even more of a head-scratcher. But the youth-centrism also served as a compelling challenge to one of America's least reliable voting blocs to, well, vote, especially in a year when their grandparents might find themselves choosing safety over the ballot.

Is it any wonder that, after all that, VP candidate Kamala Harris' keynote speech felt a little anticlimactic? The autobiographical elements of her self-introduction, as the Oakland-born, half-Black, half-Indian-American daughter of immigrants, regained their freshness when accompanied by photos and videos of her multiracial, blended family. Frequently attacked for her prosecutorial record, Harris reframed that phase of her career by naming her opponents — gangs, for-profit colleges and "the biggest banks" — then, without needing to name whom she was talking about, electrifyingly proclaimed of her current target, "I know a predator when I see one."

But many of her points — that Trump is shockingly callous and incompetent, that America's problems tend to affect Black and brown communities hardest, that "we've got to do the work" of improving the country — had been repeated so often throughout the night that they felt rote by the time we got to her turn at the podium. That's the third night of the DNC in a nutshell: The Democrats told us the things we so badly needed to hear so often that they became blessedly banal.