In his rather short political career Barack Obama has given a career’s worth of high pressure speeches; the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, his “race speech” in Philadelphia. But those were relative child’s play compared to the address Obama will be delivering two weeks from today at Invesco Field in Denver.
Since Franklin Roosevelt became the first presidential candidate to accept his party’s nomination in person at a national convention, acceptance speeches have taken on extraordinary significance in presidential campaigns. They have become the single most effective tool for candidates to get their key campaign themes across to the American people and provide a positive personal image for the electorate. At the very least, it is the most viewed, read and heard campaign speech of an entire modern presidential campaign.
But for Obama the stakes for his speech may be higher than any convention address since Bill Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination in 1992 or when Ronald Reagan accepted his party’s nod in 1980.
As many commentators have noted, the 2008 race for the White House is increasingly shaping up to be an election about Barack Obama. This is not to suggest that John McCain is a sideshow; but in a year when Democrats have huge structural advantages, when the desire for change among the American people is overwhelming and yet the party’s standard bearer remains relatively unknown to a large segment of the population, Obama’s ability to convince skeptical Americans that he can be trusted with the nation’s highest job will be critical. For Obama’s campaign, it’s as much as about change you are comfortable with as it is change you can believe in.
Of course, based on his rhetorical reputation, the pressure and the expectations could not be higher for Obama – many voters who have never seen him speak will be expecting Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy all rolled into one oratorical rock star. Throw in the fact that Obama will be speaking before 70,000 partisans in an outdoor football stadium on the 45th anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech . . . well let’s just say, I don’t envy Obama’s speechwriter.
So what should Obama do in his acceptance speech? Well, as the old saying goes, “you gotta dance with the girl who brung you.” Obama should stick with many of the same campaign themes that won him the Democratic primary over Hillary Clinton. He needs to stay away from the minutiae of ten-point policy plans and stick, instead to his vision for America; providing the American people with a clear sense of what an Obama presidency will entail.
But above all, Obama needs to inspire and energize voters, in much the same way he did back in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other primary and caucus states. Obama’s rise to power did not come from the fact that the opposed the Iraq War or he had a better health care plan than his Democratic opponents; it came from his call for political change and the aspirational nature of his candidacy.
Just as JFK did nearly 50 years ago with his New Frontier, Obama must cast the 2008 election as one between the forces of change and those that represent the status quo. With 80 percent of the country believing America is on the wrong track, this should be the easiest part of Obama’s speech.
But beyond change, a key element of Obama’s appeal is hope; and the sense that his election represents not only a new style of politics, but also a return to treasured American values after the wayward drift of the Bush years. This is a theme that needs to front and center and Obama would be wise look back not to a past Democratic candidate for inspiration, but instead a past Republican President: Ronald Reagan and his call in 1980 to “renew the American spirit and sense of purpose.”
That was the message that Barack Obama was getting at in January after he won the Iowa Democratic caucus as he sought to his cast victory in seminal terms:
Years from now, you'll look back and you'll say that this was the moment, this was the place where America remembered what it means to hope.Just as Ronald Reagan in 1980 called for a national crusade that would “make America great again,” Obama must sound a clarion call for “America to believe again;” belief in the potential of America to again do great things, whether it’s ending the war in Iraq, fixing the economy or dealing with the challenge of climate change. Obama would be wise to wrap his political agenda in this sort of affirmative vision of change. While some might consider such themes Pollyannaish, it is indeed this sort of rhetorical approach that has come to define the most memorable and effective campaign addresses.
. . . Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it.
Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire. What led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation. What led young women and young men to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom's cause.
Hope is the bedrock of this nation. The belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.
. . . We are not a collection of red states and blue states. We are the United States of America. And in this moment, in this election, we are ready to believe again.
It’s a tall order for any speech, but considering Obama’s rhetorical efforts to date, we know that he certainly has it in him. His success at meeting this challenge in Denver will go a long way toward determining whether he will be America’s 44th President.
Cohen, a former Clinton Administration speechwriter, is the author of Live From the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the Twentieth Century and How They Shaped Modern America