President Obama’s speech before the Democratic convention in Philadelphia Wednesday night was, of course, an occasion to celebrate the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state and the first woman to receive the presidential nomination of a major political party.
His presence on the podium was also a valedictory for an exceptional man and president who will be remembered for eloquently defending the founding precepts of the country — even as he used those precepts to expand the mandate of inclusiveness and broaden the definition of what it means to be an American.
From that standpoint, the Obama presidency has been transformative — perhaps even miraculous. But the very idea of a black man in the White House was too much to bear for white supremacists, birthers and the antigovernment militia groups that have only grown more savage over time. The Republican nominee, Donald Trump, traded openly on these impulses, amping up the racism, xenophobia and religious bigotry that have poisoned public discourse in this nation.
Wednesday night’s beautiful and emotional speech came 12 years after Mr. Obama, then a Senate candidate from Illinois, delivered the keynote address at the Democratic convention in Boston that brought him into the national spotlight. As he did then, Mr. Obama laid out his personal history, the son of a black Kenyan and a white American, and sounded the theme that has been common to his orations ever since: that the progress of American history is toward the creation of one people — “out of many, one.”
Steadfast optimism about the country’s ability to move past racial division even in times of tragedy and desperation is a constant theme in Mr. Obama’s philosophy. And this year — with rising fears about terrorism and the killings by and of police officers — has been such a time.
He turned again Wednesday to that long view, one that has always animated the American spirit. “The America I know is full of courage, and optimism, and ingenuity. The America I know is decent and generous,” he said. “We get frustrated with political gridlock and worry about racial divisions; we are shocked and saddened by the madness of Orlando or Nice. There are pockets of America that never recovered from factory closures; men who took pride in hard work and providing for their families who now feel forgotten. Parents who wonder whether their kids will have the same opportunities that we have.
“All of that is real; we are challenged to do better; to be better. But as I’ve traveled this country, through all 50 states; as I’ve rejoiced with you and mourned with you, what I have also seen, more than anything, is what is right with America.”
He said those words, knowing that throughout history it has always been easier to drive Americans apart, to stoop to the language of hate and peddle scapegoats for every ill.
At the very start of his journey to the White House, he delivered a speech on race in 2008. He placed his story in the context of a great nation born with a great moral failing, one that seemed impossible to correct: “Words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”
Mr. Obama said then that he ran for office to “continue the long march of those who came before us” and to convince the country that we could “perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes.”
In his eight years in the White House — an entire lifetime for youngsters who have only known a president who is black — Mr. Obama wasn’t able to heal the racial and political divisions despite his efforts and his leadership. He has expressed his regret and disappointment about that failure. But a fundamental truth of history is that change comes slowly and is often recognizable only in retrospect.
Published at The New York Times