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Kamala Harris and Barack Obama, on historic night, urge dissatisfied Americans to vote

WASHINGTON — In back to back speeches Wednesday at the virtual Democratic National Convention, former President Barack Obama and Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris reached out to Americans who feel left behind and alienated by the Trump administration, including voters who might not bother to cast a ballot and victims of structural racism. 

The speeches were part of an evening that highlighted people who have suffered from social ills that Democrats argue the Trump White House has not addressed, such as undocumented immigrants and victims of gun violence. The two hours of programming also celebrated the strides made by women in politics, capped off by the nomination of Harris, the first woman of color on major presidential ticket. It also featured remarks from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. 

The evening was bookended by poignant words about the importance of voting, first from former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head a decade ago during a mass shooting and was left with disabling brain damage. 

“America needs all of us to speak out, even when you have to fight to find the words,” said Giffords, who has struggled mightily to regain the power of speech. “We are at a crossroads. We can let the shooting continue or we can act. We can protect our families, our future. We can vote. We can be on the right side of history. We must elect Joe Biden. He was there for me; he’ll be there for you, too. Join us in this fight. Vote, vote, vote.”

Near the end of the night, Obama made a more universal appeal to voters. In between moments of searing criticism for President Donald Trump, the former president spoke about voter suppression and addressed those who feel “down on government.”

“Here’s the point: This president and those in power – those who benefit from keeping things the way they are – they are counting on your cynicism,” he said. “They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter.

“That’s how they win. … That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all. And we cannot let that happen. Do not let them take away your power. Do not let them take away your democracy,” Obama said. 

Harris spoke directly to people of color, describing how the coronavirus that is responsible for the death of 170,000 Americans this year is not “an equal opportunity offender.”

“Black, Latino and Indigenous people are suffering and dying disproportionately. This is not a coincidence. It is the effect of structural racism,” she said. “Of inequities in education and technology, health care and housing, job security and transportation. … This virus has no eyes, and yet it knows exactly how we see each other — and how we treat each other. 

“And let’s be clear — there is no vaccine for racism. We’ve got to do the work,” Harris said.  

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) accepts the Democratic vice presidential nomination during an acceptance speech delivered for the largely virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention from the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., August 19, 2020.

Kevin Lemarque | Reuters

These and other speeches made the evening feel like the Democratic Party was firmly reaching out to the people it most needs to vote in November: Young people and disaffected progressives, people of color who sat out the 2016 presidential election, and Hispanic voters. 

There was a plea that rang through many of the speeches Wednesday. It was “make a plan” to vote, whether to vote by mail or vote early, the emphasis was on avoiding a crush of in-person voters on Election Day.

Clinton framed the stakes like this: “Vote for parents struggling to balance their child’s education and their safety. And for health-care workers fighting Covid-19 with no help from the White House. Vote for paid family leave and health care for everyone. … Vote for ‘Dreamers’ and their families. For law enforcement that serves and respects communities of color. … Vote like our lives and livelihoods are on the line, because they are.

“Remember: Joe and Kamala can win by 3 million more votes and still lose. Take. It. From. Me. We need numbers so overwhelming Trump can’t sneak or steal his way to victory,” she said.

There was plenty of attention paid to the presidential nominee, Joe Biden, but the evening did not feel like a paean to the former vice president, who is set to take the stage on Thursday, when more of the program is likely to revolve around him. So far, Democrats have been careful to keep the focus each night on voters, filling the broadcast with personal stories that emphasize struggle and solidarity. 

While the tone reflected Biden’s own low-key style and the seriousness of issues facing the country this year, it was also a near-constant reminder that the virtual Republican convention next week will be very different – focused heavily on Trump on each of the four days. 

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