Was it a figment of our imagination? I’m talking about the 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention by Barack Obama, then a little-known state senator from Illinois. In his uplifting speech, he had a warning for “the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.”
“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America. There’s not a Black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.
“We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states.”
And enough Americans believed it, believed in the promise of unity, that U.S. Sen. Obama was rewarded with two terms as president of the United States, the first Black man to be elected to that office.
Even then, though, there were hints that not all Americans were celebrating the milestone, not everyone bought the lofty words.
In the background hovered Donald Trump, the same guy whose family’s real estate business had settled with the federal government after excluding folks who looked like Obama from renting a Trump property.
Trump tapped into the wariness and hostility that some felt about this Black man and his beautiful family moving into the White House and becoming the face of America to the world. Trump’s absurd “birther” lies doubting Obama’s American-ness, his bleating the president’s middle name, Hussein, on cue, all of that was lapped up by Americans insecure about their place in a changing country.
The backlash fighting progress that my historian son has told me turns up like clockwork in our country helped give us President Donald Trump. And now, with a New Hampshire primary victory and what looks like a clear path to the Republican presidential nomination, Trump is back — though, as his racist attacks on Republican challenger Nikki Haley and disparaging comments about Black and brown migrants prove, his act has hardly changed.
What is astonishing is the way so many others are following his lead. Checking Obama’s speech against what is happening now, those book bans are rattling librarians and curious young minds in red states, where those “gay friends” might not be feeling the love.
The idea that a president of the United States serves all the people, including those of a different identity or belief, including those who did not cast a ballot for the eventual winner, is as forgotten as Obama’s shining words.
Take Florida’s Ron DeSantis, something the majority of voters in his presidential primary effort failed to do. Just before he dropped out of his presidential quest, a troubling interaction with a South Carolina teacher made you wonder if he knew winning meant getting voters to like him.
When DeSantis asked those in a Lexington, S.C., crowd to list a Haley accomplishment, fourth grade teacher Regina Wasiluk responded with a defense of her state’s former governor’s record on education. After a brief back-and-forth, DeSantis said, “This isn’t your show, ma’am.”
Hey, Ron, it is her country and her right to speak.
“I was very upset that I didn’t bring my phone so that I can share it with other people who feel the same way that I do,” Wasiluk told CNN. And who could blame her?
In New Hampshire, when Haley stumbled over a question about the cause of the Civil War, “forgetting” to list slavery, the woman who wants to be seen as more moderate than others in her party blamed a Democratic “plant.”
Wasn’t her town hall open to Democrats as well as Republicans and independents? Wasn’t she trying to win their votes to put her over the top in the Granite State? Does she plan, if elected as president, to hold only events that have been carefully vetted to weed out anyone from a different political party or anyone who might disagree with her?
The United States is a sprawling, diverse country of 50 states, and the president is expected to care for and about them all — red, blue and in-between — and the people who live in them.
Trump, who seems inevitable as the next Republican presidential nominee after a win in the New Hampshire primary this week, has made clear that his plan for a second term is “retribution” against anyone he feels has ever gone against him, including those who served in his administration.
When he accuses former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley of a “treasonous act,” deserving of execution, that’s a warning far different from Obama’s criticism of those who would divide us.
And many Trump voters not only agree but also relish the possibility. Lawlessness rules, the proof being transforming criminals into “hostages” and poll numbers for the former president that rise as indictments pile up, true especially with his white evangelical base.
In “The Big Sort,” of sorts, Americans are moving to areas where they can find politically aligned neighbors, which may not seem very neighborly but surely explains D.C. gridlock, with representatives more interested in winning than governing.
The slim GOP majority in the House of Representatives saying “no” to anything that has cooperation with Democrats stamped on it dismisses not only their colleagues but also the voters who sent them to Washington.
“I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. ‘E pluribus unum.’ Out of many, one.”
Barack Obama really did say that in 2004.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on X @mcurtisnc3.