It’s a cliché, by now, to hail Barack Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention as a masterpiece. And I won’t bother going into all of the details for why that is. What I do want to recall is what it was like to be in the Garden that night eight years ago in Boston. It was a strange convention for Democrats (in the same way that it was a strange convention for Republicans last week), with their extreme, sometimes blinding hatred for their opponent and their profound, almost crippling ambivalence about their own candidate. There was a restlessness in the building, as delegates tuned out the speakers by and large except for when they were serving up lusty attacks on the President. And then Obama got up to speak.
There weren’t many expectations for a keynote address back in 2004. (While Julian Castro had to give his speech this week in a long shadow, Senate candidate Obama only had to wrestle with the feeble ghost of Harold Ford, Jr.) So it was not as if the delegates on the floor — to say nothing of the reporters, seated high up in the arena to the left of stage — were particularly eager to hear what he had to say. And yet, it was obvious from almost the moment this fresh-faced guy with the large ears opened his mouth — “Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely” — that was a speech that was going to be worth listening to.
What followed — his unlikely personal story and his appeal to national unity — only confirmed that. The next day, after attending a media lunch with Obama, and watching him work the room with the same deftness and mastery that he’d displayed on stage the night before, one of my colleagues said, “That man is going to be President of the United States.” And no one thought this pronouncement was at all premature.
Obama’s speech tonight could not avoid harkening back to the one from eight years ago. Not only did he repeat some of its same lines — about his grandfather fighting in “Patton’s Army” and his grandmother working on “a bomber assembly line” — he returned to some of its same themes. Just as he did in 2004 and then, as the party’s presidential nominee in 2008, Obama talked about hope triumphing over cynicism and the power of people to effect change. But he also knew that too much optimism would ring hollow after the last four years — and the most striking about the speech was its humility.
When Obama acknowledged that the times had changed since 2004, that back then he was “just a candidate” but now “I’m the president,” the delegates, who spent the several hours before Obama’s speech breaking into arena-rattling chants of “Fired Up Ready to Go,” took the line as a boast and cheered. But Obama’s next line — about how, as president, he now knows “what it means to send young Americans into battle” and holding “in my arms the mothers and fathers who didn’t return” — made it clear that he was trying to say something else. Once, Obama wowed a Democratic convention with the prospect of almost unimaginable possibility. Now, he was talking to them about hard-earned experience.
Time and again throughout his political career, Obama has turned to the words of Abraham Lincoln as a source of inspiration — and a spur to the idea that together Americans can do anything. (“Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought to battle through.”) But on Thursday night, he instead relied on the 16th president to reflect his own struggles: “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place to go.”
Of course, Obama couldn’t suggest that there was no place else to go, and he drew a clear contrast between his ideas and policies and those of Romney and Ryan, whose view he summed up as “since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing.” Indeed, at times, the president seemed almost contemptuous of his opponent, mocking him for his gaffes (“You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally”) and taunting him for his privilege (“If you can’t afford to start a business or go to college, take my opponent’s advice and ‘borrow money from your parents.’”)
But there was a striking sense of humility, both in rhetoric and ideas, that ran through Obama’s speech. He seemed chastened, as if he (and not just his most ardent supporters) believed that the very fact of his election four years ago would have instantly solved so many of America’s problems. “[W]hile I’m proud of what we achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings,” Obama confessed. And so instead of bold vision and soaring rhetoric, he larded his convention with State-of-the-Union-like achievable proposals. When he talked about climate change, for instance, he didn’t promise to “slow the rise of the oceans” but simply “reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet.” Most of all, he begged for patience. “The truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up every decade.” Even at the end of the speech, when he brought the delegates to their feet with his exhortation that “we don’t turn back,” he struck a slightly chastened note: “We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes. . . .”