Twelve years after he burst on the national scene with his first convention speech and two days after his wife dramatically demonstrated that his family has more than just one memorable orator, President Obama Wednesday night takes to the podium of the Democratic National Convention faced with a tricky challenge.
The president hopes to deliver both a valediction and a benediction, simultaneously looking back on his eight years as leader of the nation while also looking ahead and bestowing his blessing on the woman he hopes is the next president. In Philadelphia, he hopes to give his final marching orders to the party he led to victory in the last two elections even as someone else takes the reins from him for this one.
It is a task that has at times proven too much for the five previous presidents who spoke at their party’s conventions as lame ducks in their final months in office. But at the White House, where they know his presidency likely would not have happened without his stirring address at the 2004 convention in Boston, they insist Obama is ready.
“He is energetic. He is eager. He feels like he has a really strong argument to make and he is ready to go out there and make it forcefully,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told National Journal. “The president is eager to engage in a debate and to make a forceful argument about the future of the country. A lot of that debate has been happening without him in the primary. And he’s got some thoughts.”
The man expressing those thoughts will be a far more polished performer than the 42-year-old state legislator who used the 2004 convention to plead for comity and declare that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America.” The speech, which introduced Obama to America, also introduced the future president to a tool he would use extensively in the future: the teleprompter.
The effect of that speech was stunning. Immediately, it was ranked as one of the most important convention speeches in history—below William Jennings Bryan’s “cross of gold” address at the 1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago, but in the conversation with speeches by Hubert Humphrey in 1948, Barbara Jordan in 1976, Edward Kennedy in 1980, Mario Cuomo in 1984, and Sarah Palin in 2008.
As was the case with Bryan’s famous oration, Obama’s address helped propel him to the Democratic presidential nomination. It also, even after more than seven years of his presidency, ranks in Obama’s top five speeches, up there with his 2015 remarks on the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, his 2015 eulogy for the nine victims slain in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, his 2011 speech in Tucson after a shooting, and his 2009 Nobel lecture in Oslo.
Now, returning to the convention podium, he is unlikely to speak in the poetry of his 2004 speech. Two terms as president tends to reduce the poetry and increase the prose. That has been the pattern of the previous presidents who took to the convention stage as lame ducks—Harry Truman in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, Ronald Reagan in 1988, Bill Clinton in 2000, and George W. Bush (by video) in 2008. (Lyndon Johnson did not attend the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 when his safety could not be assured.)
The least memorable—and least helpful to a successor—of those addresses unquestionably was Eisenhower’s. It was more a dry State of the Union address than a political pep talk. In more than 4,600 words, Ike could not manage to even once mention the name of the GOP nominee, his own vice president, Richard Nixon.
In 1952, Truman was enthusiastic about his would-be successor, Adlai Stevenson—or as enthusiastic as he could be at 1:43 a.m. “It’s early in the morning and it’s getting earlier,” he grumbled, begging the delegates to “be quiet and let me do my job.” He then gave a heartfelt introduction of Stevenson, finally getting him to the podium at 2:10 a.m.
Reagan, in 1988, gave perhaps the most effective political speech of the group to help his vice president, nominee George H.W. Bush. He took it as his mission to use the speech to answer a laughing taunt posed at the earlier Democratic convention by Edward Kennedy. Kennedy repeatedly cited Reagan administration snafus and led the delegates in shouts of “Where was George?” Reagan, unlike Eisenhower, rattled off his administration’s accomplishments and warmly embraced Bush, saying, “George was there,” before asking Bush to “go out there and win one for the Gipper.”
Clinton was similarly effusive in praising Vice President Al Gore in 2000 in Los Angeles, mentioning his name 13 times and declaring, “One of the best decisions of my life [was] asking Al Gore to be my partner.” Eight years later, at the GOP convention in Minnesota, George W. Bush tried to boost nominee John McCain. But he was hampered both by his deep unpopularity and distance—he stayed away from the convention, ostensibly to oversee the response to Hurricane Gustav, and spoke by video. It was the shortest of the lame-duck presidential speeches, at only 1,000 words, but had 15 mentions of McCain.
On Wednesday, Obama may break that mark with his praise of Hillary Clinton, his first secretary of State. “He is genuinely enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton,” said Earnest. “He has described watching her up close both when they were in competition and when they were working together in the administration. He’s got an informed view, and he is eager to be an advocate for her.”
He may also have a tough time matching the excitement engendered by first lady Michelle Obama’s rousing address on the convention’s first night. With a two-term record to defend, he is likely to be less personal than she was. He is eager to cast that record in a more positive light after the bashing heard at the GOP convention in Cleveland. “He views it as less defending the past and more of advocating for the record,” said Earnest. “There is a strong track record. The results speak for themselves.” He added, “The president wants to seize the initiative in this debate. He is not playing defense here. He is playing offense.”