Former President Barack Obama delivered a searing rebuke of President Donald Trump during a Democratic National Convention address in Philadelphia on Wednesday night, saying the country’s very democracy is at stake if Trump wins a second term.

Trump, Obama said, has “unleashed” America’s “worst impulses.”

Obama spoke from the Museum of the American Revolution, near the Liberty Bell, a site intended to evoke the country’s founding, and the values Democrats say are at risk under Trump. He appeared in the biggest city of one of the country’s most important swing states.

Standing in front of a museum display about the writing of the Constitution, Obama said a president should be “the custodian of this democracy,” but that Trump had failed.

“For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work,” Obama said. “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, who has mostly followed presidential tradition and avoided taking direct aim at Trump, on Wednesday attacked him in unusually direct and harsh terms, assailing the man who many voters chose as a response to the Obama years. Obama and Trump have had a bitter relationship for years, dating back to Trump’s false attacks on Obama’s citizenship.

Obama on Wednesday pointed starkly to the consequences of the coronavirus and the country’s fumbling response to the pandemic.

“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. 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,” Obama said. “Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.”

Trump, tweeting in all-caps as Obama spoke, wrote “WHY DID HE REFUSE TO ENDORSE SLOW JOE UNTIL IT WAS ALL OVER, AND EVEN THEN WAS VERY LATE?”

Obama stayed out of the Democratic primary, hoping to preserve a role for himself as a party unifier when the nominating contest was over. But on Wednesday he hailed Democratic nominee Joe Biden, praising his former vice president’s character, experience, empathy, and dignity. “He made me a better president, and he’s got the character and the experience to make us a better country,” Obama said.

He concluded with a lengthy appeal to voters to use this election to preserve the country’s principles — saying they have been endangered not just by Trump, but by “those who enable him.”

“I am also asking you to believe in your own ability — to embrace your own responsibility as citizens — to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure,” Obama said. “Because that’s what’s at stake right now. Our democracy.”

“Do not let them take away your power,” he added.

Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, said on Twitter that “no former President has ever attacked his incumbent successor at a convention” like Obama did Wednesday.

Obama, the country’s first Black president, spoke on a night that showcased Democrats’ diversity. His speech came shortly after an address from Hillary Clinton, the first woman nominated for president by a major party, and shortly before a speech from Sen. Kamala Harris, the first woman of color nominated for vice president by a major party.

The Republican National Committee said Obama and Biden led a weak recovery from the last recession and backed international trade deals that would have had devastating consequences for American workers.

“For eight years, Joe Biden and Barack Obama’s administration had the opportunity to make lives better for the American people, yet they repeatedly dropped the ball,” an RNC statement said.

Former President Barack Obama arrives underground at the Museum of the American Revolution on Wednesday night in Philadelphia, where he addressed the Democratic National Convention.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Former President Barack Obama arrives underground at the Museum of the American Revolution on Wednesday night in Philadelphia, where he addressed the Democratic National Convention.

About 200 people gathered at 3rd and Chestnut Streets and cheered as Obama’s motorcade arrived at the museum around 9:30 p.m. He waved to police officers as his vehicle whisked him into the museum.

Scott McCarthy, 58, of Queen Village, called himself a progressive who had misgivings about Obama’s presidency and Biden’s candidacy. But he called Trump’s tenure an “abomination” and said he plans to volunteer for get-out-the-vote efforts for Biden.

Obama’s visit, he said, was “cool for Philadelphia, and you don’t get to see a president every day of the week.”

“Biden-Harris will be back to the status quo. ... That’s not a mandate,” McCartney said. “But we’ll do the things that need to be done” to defeat Trump.

Obama’s appearance was the latest example of how both parties are placing a premium on Pennsylvania, seen as one of the most important states in the presidential election. On Thursday, Trump is scheduled to visit Old Forge, near Scranton, for his own campaign event just outside Biden’s childhood hometown.

And at the Democratic convention on Tuesday, Jill Biden, Joe Biden’s wife, stressed her Willow Grove background, while a joint-keynote address featuring young, rising figures in the party included three Pennsylvanians: U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle and State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia, and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, who represents a Trump-friendly district outside Pittsburgh.

Biden has consistently led in Pennsylvania polls, but it is expected to remain one of the most hotly contested battlegrounds in the country.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the last name of Scott McCarthy.