CHARLOTTE – Almost immediately after then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama stepped away from the podium at Boston’s Fleet Center during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the pundits predicted his brilliant keynote speech would catapult him into a successful run for president of the United States.
As it turned out, they were prescient. Now, eight years later, Obama returns to the podium tonight to deliver yet another speech at the Democratic National Convention. In the intervening eight years, the nation is so much is different and, in many ways, not so changed at all.
This is a story about then and now. It begins with boundless optimism, born of the rosy afterglow following Obama’s 2004 speech that some wanted to believe heralded a post-racial period in American history. Of course, that’s not how the story has unfolded. Indeed, since that speech, nothing about Obama’s time on the national stage has suggested a narrowing of racial concerns in the nation.
Quite the contrary; as Obama’s ongoing re-election campaign demonstrates, race remains a powerful and divisive force in American politics and life. And despite Obama’s efforts to ignore or transcend its grip, as outlined in his 2004 speech, racism continues to define him and his administration.
Is it possible that anyone could have predicted all that has transpired? How could they have known? At the time of the speech, Obama was a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Hardly anyone outside of Chicago knew or could pronounce his name. Going from a stirring keynote address at the DNC to the White House is, as Obama titled that speech, the audacity of hope.
After being informed in early July by the Kerry campaign that he would be the keynote speaker on the second night of the convention, Obama spent weeks writing in longhand what he wanted to say. There was a lot he wanted to cram into the allotted 20 minutes, including his personal narrative and his support for the party’s ticket – Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, a senator from North Carolina.
Relatively few Americans actually watched the speech as it occurred, because the commercial networks didn’t broadcast it. Some nine million people, a small number for television, saw it on the combined Public Broadcasting System, cable outlets like CNN and MSNBC and C-SPAN.
Since then, however, countless millions have watched snippets or recorded versions on YouTube or elsewhere on the Internet, giving that speech a kind of you-were-there immortality. It’s as if everyone who has seen the speech was one of the delegates in the Fleet Center, waving the blue-and-white signs and chanting “Obama!”
In the speech itself, Obama tapped into the campaign themes. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America,” he shouted like a Baptist preacher. “There’s the United States of America.”
He touched the right buttons of faith, family, devotion to shared values and respect for national unity, as he eschewed divisive wedge issues.
“We worship an awesome God in the blue states and we don’t like federal agents poking around our liberties in the red states,” he said to cheers. “We coach Little League in the blue states, and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. 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.”