This story was originally published by the Duke Political Review on November 4, 2016.
Too hot for early November. I share my disdain for the sun with another reporter in the press pen, who turns, and chuckles.
“Don’t worry. Global warming is a myth, remember?”
We’re flanked on our right by 16,200 others — many of them students — who came here today to see the President of the United States. We’re less than a week away from the election, and whatever remnants of the confidence Democrats exuded two weeks ago is gone. The gap in the polls is narrowing. Florida and North Carolina could swing Trump. Arizona is almost firmly a Republican lock.
But here, at Hooker Field at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, you wouldn’t know. There are “Nasty Women” t-shirts, and bootleg campaign pins. In a sea of spectators, there are only a handful who aren’t donning some sort of Clinton attire. One woman, Mary Austin, is so delighted the President came to town that she brings her two corgis, Harry the Professor, and Ray the baby Flash, to see him.
Roy Williams and his team are huddled in a corner to the left of the stage, just past a pair of “Stronger Together” banners. Anytime a reporter (read: me) finds the courage to march over and ask the old ball-coach a question, he retreats to the other side of his pen. He’s too smart for this game.
After a pair of student speakers, Representative David Price, Senate candidate Deborah Ross, Attorney General and Gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper, and an inexplicably long James Taylor concert, it’s turn for the President to speak. Only, he’s late. And in the hot sun, this crowd — the campaign’s second largest of the year — begins to feel the heat. Some faint. Many are dehydrated. But they stay, because after four, five, or six hours of waiting, they’re on a mission.
They’re here to see President Obama fight.
This is Barack Obama’s last stand.
In a way, it had to happen like this. Both Obama and Trump would have been linked before the Republican primary secured the latter’s place in American history. Obama’s disdain for Donald Trump is no secret. Trump was a leading conspiracy theorist, challenging the President’s place of birth, and hounding him to produce a birth certificate. Then, when he did, Trump claimed fraud, and promised to send private investigators to search for the truth. So how fitting is it that the man who spent the better part of the last decade undermining the President’s legitimacy would now be one of two contenders vying to replace him?
For months, the man in the oval has repeated that Trump was “unfit to be President.”
And yet, with less than a week left until the election, there is a chance — a growing chance — that the 45th President of the United States will be Donald J. Trump.
Who follows Obama matters to him. This is the last, and possibly most important fight of his tenure. This election is a referendum on his administration. A Trump presidency is an inherent failing grade for the Obama presidency as a whole — a bold claim by the American people that what transpired over the past eight years was not palatable, and a cry for a leader to take us in a new (or, in this case, old) direction.
“We’ve got six days,” Obama said. “Six days to decide the future of this country we love… I hate to put that pressure on you, but the fate of the republic rests on your shoulders.”
In spite of the chaos that seems to follow him, Obama’s charm hasn’t wavered. Even now, when the anger and urgency in his tone are obvious, he’s relaxed. His hair has greyed. The presidency has aged him, like it does all its victims. But he’s still somehow the same, charismatic Illinois senator we elected eight years ago. He leans on the podium with both hands — no tie around his neck — and with a charm only he can exude, tells the crowd it’s time to get down to “bidness.” Not business, but “bidness.”
When another spectator succumbs to heatstroke, he pauses, and asks the crowd to give her some space. It’s a hot one, he says. She just needs some water and some space, and she’ll be fine. He’s done this before.
A little more than a week before the rally, on Kimmel, Obama read some of the mean tweets directed at him — one of which came from the Republican nominee.
“President Obama will go down as perhaps the worst president in the history of the United States!” Trump tweeted.
“Well, @realDonaldTrump, at least I will go as a president.”
As an orator, Obama is effective when he’s calm, and charming. But it isn’t until he falls into his cadence — that trademark rhythm and inflection that defined every major speech he’d given up to now, when he lists things he believes in, and thinks you should believe in too — that he truly moves his disciples.
“I am not on the ballot,” he said, “but I tell you what, fairness is on the ballot. Decency is on the ballot. Progress is on the ballot, and our democracy is on the ballot.”
This fight matters to him. It does. He more than once asked voters to choose hope, and “stand up and reject cynicism” and fear.
“Your vote matters,” he implored. “If Hillary wins North Carolina, she wins.”
But in truth, this election is as much about Clinton winning the White House as it is Trump losing. A campaign that’s legitimized white nationalism as a talking point, demeaned women, minorities, immigrants, and any and all who oppose it has no place in American politics. The arc of history marches forward toward progress. When it bends back to hate, it moves there out of fear.
It’s this very fear that Obama is here to combat.
“This is about the character of our nation,” he said. “I didn’t say ‘Yes I Can,’ I said ‘Yes We Can.’”
He attacked Trump for his egocentrism, and Klan support. He attacked Trump for being sued by the Department of Justice for housing discrimination. He attacked Trump for the Billy Bush tape. He attacked Trump for his comments on immigrants, and minorities, and gold star families. He called him a loser.
“I know it’s hard to view me as objective here,” Obama said, “but I’m about to leave. I’m just telling the truth. This is someone who is uniquely unqualified. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man you can trust with the nuclear codes.”
The only person who can carry on his legacy is Clinton, he said. All the progress he made in office, “goes out the window if we don’t win that election.”
And he’s right. It does. This is election is a cage match for the heart of America, sure. But it’s also a fight for Obama’s legacy. In the eyes of millions of Americans, Hillary Clinton was qualified to hold the office eight years ago when she ran into the Hope and Change Express. Now, eight years later, she’s here to make sure it doesn’t derail.
During a short portion of the speech not dedicated to lambasting the Republican nominee, Obama listed his accomplishments as president — what was, by his own words, at stake on November 8. His greatest hits record.
Battling back after the great recession. The assassination of Osama Bin-Laden. The repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the passage of the Affordable Care Act. And none of it would have been possible, he said, without Hillary Clinton.
“She made me a better president, and she’s an outstanding public servant,” Obama said. “She’s got plans. The other guy isn’t a big plan guy.”
After spending the better part of a decade cultivating — or at least trying to cultivate — a sense of decency in politics, it’s clear that the lack of decorum in this year’s race is getting to the president. He spent a noticable amount of time focusing on Senator Richard Burr, and comments he made earlier in the month at a campaign rally.
“Last week, he [Burr] joked about violence against Hillary,” Obama said, “and that’s not something we do. This is becoming normal…and it’s not normal.”
The fight for North Carolina mirrors that of the presidency. This is a state Obama narrowly won in 2008, and lost in 2012. The truest of converted Republican holds that slowly crept its way to tossup territory as demographics shifted. A Pew study found that the share of registered Latino voters in North Carolina rose from 0.2 percent in 2004 to 2.1 percent in 2016. 22.4 percent of registered voters in the state are black, and white voters make up 70.5 percent of the electorate — down more than 7 points from 2004.
This is a changing state. One that parallels the nation. And one where three hotly contested elections isn’t surprising, but expected. And so it’s only fitting that with six days left until the last ballots are cast, President Obama was here, urging voters one last time to defend his legacy.
“It’s not often when you can move the arc of history,” he said. “Don’t let that slip away.”
And after he stepped back to cheers, and chants — after the waves, and screams of joy — he walked back to the podium, took a drink, and wiped the sweat from his face.
The election was less than a week away, and there was work to be done.