Barack Obama at the DNC: A Look Back at His 2008 Speech, and Ahead to Thursday

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This is likely to be the biggest campaign speech of his career that won't focus largely on biography.



Four years ago, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama gave the speech embedded above at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, accepting his party's nomination en route to his triumph at the ballot box. As the Democrats gather again, this time in Charlotte, North Carolina, it's an opportune moment to look back at that speech. Which points are likely to be repeated this year?

Which will go unmentioned?

Here are my predictions.
 
LESS ABOUT THE BIOGRAPHY OF BARACK OBAMA

Obama first gained national attention with his 2004 speech at the DNC. In it, he explicitly tied his own biography to his belief in America's promise and exceptionalism, arguing that only in this country could the unusually named son of an African immigrant and a white woman achieve admittance to the best schools, professional success, and high office. He returned to that theme in 2008. "That's why I stand here tonight," he said. "Because for two hundred and thirty two years, at each moment when that promise was in jeopardy, ordinary men and women -- students and soldiers, farmers and teachers, nurses and janitors -- found the courage to keep it alive."

By now, Americans no longer need to be introduced to Obama, and have heard his life story countless times; having already elected a black president, reelecting one doesn't seem historic; and Dinesh D'Souza and his followers aside, what we've seen of Obama in the White House informs how we judge his character a lot more than whatever we might gather from his background. For these reasons, the speech this year is likely to be much lighter on biography. This may seem obvious, but it's nevertheless notable, because this is the first time Obama has had to run for office without a story widely regarded as inspirational -- his own -- at the center of his campaign.

A DIFFERENT DEFINITION OF PROGRESSIn 2008, running against a GOP that governed as America slid into an economic downturn, Obama said:


You see, we Democrats have a very different measure of what constitutes progress in this country. We measure progress by how many people can find a job that pays the mortgage; whether you can put a little extra money away at the end of each month so you can someday watch your child receive her college diploma. We measure progress in the 23 million new jobs that were created when Bill Clinton was President - when the average American family saw its income go up $7,500 instead of down $2,000 like it has under George Bush. We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether someone with a good idea can take a risk and start a new business, or whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off to look after a sick kid without losing her job - an economy that honors the dignity of work.

Obama will no longer measure progress by focusing on those metrics -- instead, he'll likely assert that it should be measured by the number of people with access to health care, the ability of gays to serve openly in the military, and the ease of women's access to contraception, among other things.

CLAIMING VINDICATION ON FOREIGN POLICY

Four years ago, Obama promised to get us out of Iraq, send more troops into Afghanistan, and kill Osama bin Laden. Despite the troubled Afghan war effort, I predict he'll argue success on all fronts, perhaps even claiming that our presence in Afghanistan helped us to kill bin Laden and various other terrorists in Pakistan. What he can no longer claim, because of Afghanistan, is that "I will only send our troops into harm's way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home." Nor can he rightly claim that "I will restore our moral standing," given all the innocents his drone policy has killed, but I suspect that he'll do it anyway by narrowly focusing on his success ending torture without suffering another terrorist attack. Finally, he'll try to assure us, simultaneously, that he's willing to go to war with Iran if necessary, and that the Republicans are spoiling to go to war with Iran even if it is unnecessary. 

LESS CHARITABLE TO HIS OPPONENTS

Said Obama in 2008:

These are the policies I will pursue. And in the weeks ahead, I look forward to debating them with John McCain. But what I will not do is suggest that the Senator takes his positions for political purposes. Because one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism.

I don't expect Obama to attack the patriotism of Romney-Ryan. But attacks on their character will be common at the DNC -- if suggesting some of their positions are politically motivated counts as a character attack. Said Obama in 2008, "The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook."

Given the tenor of this campaign so far, I don't expect to hear that again.

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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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