The Romney and Obama 2004 Convention Speeches: How Do They Hold Up?

A look back at two addresses, one forgotten, one renowned.

Microphone full Flickr Johann Larsson.png
Johann Larsen/Flickr

During Election 2004, Mitt Romney was a moderate Massachusetts Republican in his second year as governor. Barack Obama was an Illinois state legislator mounting what would be a successful bid for the U.S. Senate. They were relative unknowns on the national scene when asked by their respective political parties to give speeches at their national conventions. Romney's speech has been all but forgotten; Obama's keynote catapulted him to national attention.

So what did they say, exactly?

There were many differences, or course. Most obviously, one speech lauded the leadership of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, while the other praised the vision of John Kerry and John Edwards.

The Romney speech praised the Bush Administration's foreign policy. "On the just war our brave soldiers are fighting to protect free people everywhere, there is no question: George W. Bush is right, and the 'Blame America First' crowd is wrong," he told the crowd, conjuring a straw man.

The Obama speech took a different approach. "There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America," he stated.

Here's what a Romney zing looked like:

Senator Kerry now tells us he has a clear position on the war on terror. He voted no on Desert Storm in 1991 and yes on Desert Shield today. Then he voted no on troop funding, just after he'd voted yes. He's campaigned against the war all year, but says he'd vote yes today.

And here's an Obama zing:

When we send our young men and women into harm's way, we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they are going, to care for their families while they're gone, to tend to the soldiers upon their return and to never, ever go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace and earn the respect of the world.

The soundbite that ought to most embarrass Romney: "We need George W. Bush."

And the one that should embarrass Obama: "If there's an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties." And what if, rather than being rounded up, they're placed on a kill list and assassinated without due process?

The delivery of the Obama speech was superb. But all these years later, after hearing Obama's life story so many times, nothing about its substance seems particularly noteworthy. For so celebrated a speech, it doesn't contain much that I expect to endure in the annals of history, given that Obama's biography has not, in fact, enabled him to govern as a uniter or to change the system.

Romney wasn't giving a keynote and spoke for only a third as much time. As noted, it's already forgotten.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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