Making the case for a second term: A recent history

September 6, 2012

When President Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention on Thursday night, he will try to make the case for a second term. How have other recent presidents approached this task? Below we take a look back at the past four acceptance speeches that incumbents delivered at their nominating conventions:

George W. Bush, 2004: Past vs. future

Different as they are politically, there is some resemblance between Bush's 2004 speech and the message Democrats have been trying to underscore in Charlotte this week. Bush argued in his speech that a vote for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) represented a step backward.

"His policies of tax and spend, of expanding government rather than expanding opportunity, are the politics of the past. We are on the path to the future, and we're not turning back," Bush said in a speech in which he was not shy about going after his opponent.

Sound familiar? The "Forward" slogan that Obama and his allies have been underscoring in this year's campaign has been everywhere in Charlotte this week. Bush, who was running for reelection in the midst of the war in Iraq, used the second half of his speech to defend his national security record, which was a major focus of the campaign. But he also discussed domestic initiatives, including reforming Social Security, a task that he didn't accomplish (and later said he regretted not doing) in either of his terms in office.

Bill Clinton, 1996: Building a bridge to the 21st century

Using the word "bridge" over and over, Clinton vowed to move the country forward into the next century and warned against returning to the recession that struck the U.S. in the early part of the decade.

"So tonight, let us resolve to build that bridge to the 21st century, to meet our challenges and protect our values. Let us build a bridge to help our parents raise their children, to help young people and adults to get the education and training they need, to make our streets safer, to help Americans succeed at home and at work, to break the cycle of poverty and dependence, to protect our environment for generations to come, and to maintain our world leadership for peace and freedom. Let us resolve to build that bridge," he said.

Clinton's 1996 argument was effective. He won reelection with 379 electoral votes vs. 159 for his challenger, Republican Bob Dole.

George H.W. Bush, 1992: Mistake on taxes?

When he accepted his party's nomination in 1988, Bush famously declared, "Read my lips: No new taxes." Unable to keep his promise, Bush faced attacks on that front from the Clinton campaign in 1992.

In his speech at the 1992 convention, Bush said, "It was a mistake to go along with the Democratic tax increase, and I admit it." But it would not help him avoid defeat at the hands of Clinton in November.

Ronald Reagan, 1984: "Are you better off?" (again)

As Republicans and Democrats grapple with the "Are you better off?" question this election cycle, Reagan posed the question in 1980 and then raised it again in his 1984 convention speech.

"In 1980, we asked the people of America, 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' Well, the people answered then by choosing us to bring about a change," Reagan said. "We have every reason now, four years later, to ask that same question again -- for we have made a change. The American people joined and helped us."

He won reelection in a landslide later that year.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Chris Cillizza · September 6, 2012