WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama returned to the political arena Wednesday to issue a norm-shattering warning to the country that President Donald Trump represents an existential threat to the American experiment.
Democrats lauded the address for its value as a historical marker — a baring of the national moment in context — and yet the oratory of ideals also served as the velvet cover for a political hammer.
"Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t," Obama said. "And the consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 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."
The unusually direct attack by a former president on his successor, especially on a night when it might temporarily overshadow the first nomination of a woman of color for vice president, pointed to Obama's unique political value to Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris. More than anyone, he has demonstrated the ability to appeal simultaneously to the core elements of their electoral formula: Black voters and persuadable white voters.
While Obama offered a brief assessment of Harris' abilities, and a longer testament to Biden's, he came less to praise them than to bury Trump's political career. Passages delivered with historical allusions and homages to his own rhetoric of nonpartisanship — "these shouldn’t be Republican principles or Democratic principles, they’re American principles" — adorned his scorn for Trump, but they did not hide it.
"For close to four years now, he’s 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.
Trump replied in capital letters by noting that Obama did not back his own vice president until the Democratic primary process was effectively over, and later with a video accusing Obama, Biden and other members of their administration of setting him up when they were leaving office.
"WHY DID HE REFUSE TO ENDORSE SLOW JOE UNTIL IT WAS ALL OVER, AND EVEN THEN WAS VERY LATE?" Trump wrote on Twitter.
In an exchange of emails with NBC News, Jeff Shesol, a speechwriter in President Bill Clinton's White House and a founding partner of the firm West Wing Writers, called Obama's speech "a civics lesson from the edge of a cliff."
Trump, he noted, never observed the custom of presidents handling each other with kid gloves while Obama has largely declined to get drawn into fights that electrify Trump's base.
"But as Obama made so clear tonight, our democracy is under assault," Shesol said. "Our system of self-government is in danger. In that light, it would be a dereliction of duty for him to tiptoe around Trump."
Former first lady Michelle Obama appeared to set the stage for her husband to go after Trump, creating a permission structure in her own remarks to the Democratic convention earlier in the week. Recalling her oft-repeated phrase "when they go low, we go high," Michelle Obama reframed her meaning.
"When we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that's drowning out everything else. ... We degrade the very causes for which we fight," she said. "Going high means unlocking the shackles of lies and mistrust with the only thing that can truly set us free: the cold, hard truth. So let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can: Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country."
Download the NBC News app for alerts and all the latest on the Democratic convention
Of course, Obama is not the first president to criticize another member of the club at a political convention. In 1996, former President George H.W. Bush suggested to the Republican National Convention that the man who defeated him four years earlier, Bill Clinton, had hurt the office of the presidency through scandal.
"It breaks my heart when the White House is demeaned, the presidency itself diminished," Bush said, declining to use Clinton's name or even fully blame him for the deficiencies he saw. "Bob Dole, as president, will treat the White House with respect. His staff will be beyond even the appearance of impropriety."
Michael Beschloss, the NBC News presidential historian and the author of nine books on the subject, needed only a few dozen characters to capture the exceptional nature of Obama beseeching Americans to save their very system of governance by voting Trump out of power.
"No former President has ever attacked his incumbent successor at a convention like Barack Obama tonight, or even come close," he wrote on Twitter. "No former President before Barack Obama tonight ever felt compelled to say of his successor, 'Don't let them take away your democracy.'"