PHILADELPHIA — Twelve years to the day after President Obama first offered Americans the promise of moving beyond paralyzing partisanship, he took the stage here at the Democratic National Convention at a time when the nation is more starkly polarized than before.
But instead of shying away from the themes he spoke so eloquently about in 2004, the president returned directly to them in his 44-minute address on Wednesday.
In a pointed rebuke to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, Obama argued that the common American values and ideals he identified in his first national address remain as true today as they did then — even if it’s hard to see them.
The GOP convention last week in Cleveland fanned “resentment, and blame, and anger, and hate. And that is not the America I know,” Obama said. “The America I know is full of courage, and optimism, and ingenuity. The America I know is decent and generous.”
As he offered an enthusiastic prime-time endorsement of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Obama implored the public “to reject cynicism, reject fear, to summon what’s best in us.”
Aides said before the speech that the president’s aim was to not to dwell on his own accomplishments or to offer a point-by-point rebuttal of Trump’s insults or criticisms. Rather, they said, his goal was to make the case for Clinton’s qualifications while squarely addressing the broader national debate over America’s values and moral character in the wake of Trump’s rise.
It’s not that Obama does not acknowledge the public’s frustration over what he referred to, in his State of the Union address, as “the rancor and suspicion between the parties that has gotten worse instead of better.” He said the state of affairs in Washington is “one of the few regrets of my presidency.”
But in several addresses since then, the president has implored the public not to give up on American democracy and the often messy political process, and challenged his supporters to redouble their commitment to the slow and difficult work that can bring about change.
On Wednesday, he touted Clinton as someone who has been in the White House with him during her time as secretary of state and has put in the hard effort. “Hillary’s been in the room; she’s been part of those decisions,” Obama said. He contrasted that with Trump and sought to isolate the New York business mogul even from his own party, saying the Trump-led GOP is not consistent with Republican or conservative values.
It is a “deeply pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other, and turn away from the rest of the world,” Obama said.
He then reminded his audience of their common bonds, offering a more positive vision of a nation whose diversity makes it stronger.
“I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together — black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young and old; gay, straight, men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love,” Obama said.
With approval ratings topping 50 percent, aides said, Obama is in a desirable political position heading into the fall to act as Clinton’s surrogate-in-chief. The former secretary of state has sought to tie herself closely to the president whose cabinet she served in as they make the case for a third consecutive Democratic term in the White House.
Clinton thrilled thousands of supporters at the Wells Fargo Center by joining Obama unannounced on the stage after his remarks for an emotional embrace and an arm-in-arm wave to the cheering crowd.
But aides said the president was adamant that, despite his healthy poll numbers, he did not want his convention address to resemble the kind of valedictory speeches given by other two-term presidents — Ronald Reagan in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 2000. Obama explained to his aides that he wanted to clearly enunciate the stakes of the election and the stark choice that voters face in selecting his successor.
The president began discussing the address last month with senior aides, including chief speechwriter Cody Keenan, who has worked at the White House for both of Obama’s terms.
As he has done before working on all major speeches, Keenan reread Obama’s 2004 keynote address at the Democratic convention in Boston, which he delivered while running for the U.S. Senate from Illinois.
In a briefing for reporters Wednesday afternoon, a senior administration official said that the appeal of that speech was “not because it was lofty, naive thinking, but I think a lot of people saw universal truths in there, that we’re still always looking for.”
The official added that Obama “didn’t say there are no red states or blue states, but he said that we play Little League in blue states and we don’t like people snooping around in red states. That all still holds true. I don’t agree that’s a uniquely Barack Obama sentiment; I think he just said it pretty eloquently. But that’s the story of America. That’s there. He’s not painting a picture of an aspirational one, but something we have to every once in a while remember has been in front of us the entire time.”
Before putting anything on paper, Keenan left Washington for his honeymoon, but after returning he offered Obama a first draft of the speech last week. The president worked through at least six drafts, tinkering until 3:30 a.m. after watching first lady Michelle Obama deliver her rousing convention address Monday. Aides suggested there may have been a touch of spousal competitiveness at play.
The president then needed just a single dry run, reciting the speech out loud in the Map Room on Tuesday, before pronouncing himself satisfied. (It ran 30 minutes without applause, but clocked in at 44 minutes on stage in Philadelphia.) Obama aides contacted the Clinton campaign this week to offer them a summary of the address.
Toward the end of his remarks in Philadelphia, the president, as he did in 2004, used his own biography to illustrate the ability of the nation to bridge differences. He said his white grandparents from Kansas did not discriminate on race or ethnicity or even politics — but rather respected hard work and honesty and kindness across the board.
“America has changed over the years,” Obama said. “But these values my grandparents taught me — they haven’t gone anywhere. They’re as strong as ever; still cherished by people of every party, every race, and every faith. They live on in each of us. What makes us American, what makes us patriots, is what’s in here.”
The president tapped on his chest and added: “That’s what matters.”