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The Story Behind Obama’s Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention

By Mary Frances Berry and Josh Gottheimer

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama takes the stage tonight to speak at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Twelve years ago, he made his famous keynote address at the 2004 DNC that catapulted him into the national spotlight. We look back on this speech with a passage from Power in Words: The Stories Behind Barack Obama’s Speeches, from the State House to the White House in which authors Mary Frances Berry and Josh Gottheimer give us a behind-the-scenes look at the craft and preparation that went into it.


It’s fair to say that no one could have expected what resulted from Barack Obama’s prime-time speech at the July 2004 Democratic National Convention. Not the Senate candidate himself nor his two key aides and traveling companions, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, nor Mary Beth Cahill, the campaign manager for John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president.

No one could have imagined how that seventeen-minute speech would catapult Obama into stardom and onto the national political stage and eventually into the White House itself. After all, no one had even heard of Barack Obama before he took the podium. On the morning of the speech, the Philadelphia Inquirer headlined, “Who the Heck Is This Guy?”

True, Obama had captured the attention of people in his home state and had become the leading candidate for the Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate vacated by Peter Fitzgerald, a Republican. But he had grabbed the lead only after his well-funded Republican opponent Jack Ryan dropped out of the race in the wake of a sex scandal. Having served only in the Illinois State Senate for eight years, Obama was not a national figure by any stretch. In fact, he has since reminded people that in 2000, after his failed bid for Congress, he had trouble even getting a pass onto the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles and ended up watching the proceedings on a TV screen near the convention hall. He was so broke that the rental car facility rejected his American Express card.

Obama wrote in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, “The process by which I was selected as keynote speaker remains something of a mystery to me.” In truth, there wasn’t much mystery about it. The Kerry campaign had thought long and hard about whom to pick for the slot. A team of about a dozen convention organizers, including Cahill, the Massachusetts politico Jack Corrigan, and the campaign strategist Robert Shrum, considered their options. The group narrowed their list of appealing Democratic Party politicos to Governors Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Tom Vilsack of Iowa, and Obama.

In the end, the campaign concluded that Obama was the politically wise choice; he would help them attract African American voters, a demographic that had been lagging in the polls. He was eloquent and youthful and delivered the right optimistic message (his campaign speeches for the U.S. Senate included the now familiar “Yes, we can”). Illinois was also a critical Senate seat. It was true that the campaign was concerned about Obama’s position on the war in Iraq—Kerry had initially voted to authorize military action. But ultimately, as Cahill put it, “I was convinced he was going to be the best.”

Plus, on a personal level, Kerry and Obama had hit it off during a joint campaign swing in spring 2004, first at a vocational center on Chicago’s West Side and then at a downtown fund-raiser at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. According to David Mendell, there was a clear rapport between the two: “It’s Kerry kind of looking at him and picking up tricks from the rookie.”

Obama and his aides had pursued the speaking slot with intensity and purpose. The team composed an eight-minute video that included excerpts from Obama’s Illinois Senate primary victory speech and campaign photos set to music from the documentary movie When We Were Kings, featuring Muhammad Ali. And Gibbs, a former Kerry campaign staffer, worked the phones to his former colleagues. They knew the promising history of past keynote speakers, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, who delivered rousing nomination speeches for Alfred E. Smith in 1924 and 1928, and Bill Clinton, who introduced Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988. Even though Hubert Humphrey, Barbara Jordan, and Mario Cuomo didn’t ascend to the presidency, their convention speeches have become important historical footnotes: Humphrey delivered a fiery defense of civil rights in 1948; Barbara Jordan was the first black woman to deliver a keynote speech in 1976; Cuomo’s 1984 “Tale of Two Cities” speech, about rich and poor in America, received critical acclaim.

Barack Obama began working on his speech in early July, as soon as Cahill delivered the good news that he had been chosen. Without missing a beat, Obama turned to his aides and delivered a clear message: he would write this speech. According to Gibbs, “He wanted to write this speech...in a way that was personal.” Axelrod later commented, “Almost immediately he said to me, ‘I know what I want to do. I want to talk about my story as part of the American story.’”

Obama toiled away on the draft assiduously, at all hours of the day and night, up until a week before the convention, when the convention speechwriting team demanded to see a copy. He wrote one version after another, scribbling lines on scraps of paper, on the corners of envelopes, on yellow legal pads, and on the top of memos from his aides. Obama tested lines from the speech on everyone, from crowds at his campaign events to his state senate colleagues. At one point, after coming up with a new idea, he went and sat on a stool in the bathroom off the Illinois General Assembly floor to write it down. According to one former campaign aide, David Katz, “We’d finish [the senate day] at nine or ten p.m. and he’d write till one or two in the morning.”

The Kerry staff gave Obama eight minutes of speaking time. Obama’s first draft was twenty-five minutes, so he sent drafts back and forth to his aides; they’d cut out lines and he’d invariably add them back into the text.

The Kerry campaign was a little anxious about what Obama’s speech would say; he was still an unknown quantity. Vicky Rideout, the convention’s chief speechwriter, had been expecting a draft in mid-July and it was getting late.

But the moment Rideout received and read the draft, she knew they had a hit. At seventeen minutes the speech was longer than they had asked for, but it didn’t matter. Rideout asked to take out one line, but otherwise accepted the speech as it was submitted.

Obama arrived in Boston the evening before his first rehearsal at the FleetCenter. Gibbs had scheduled a flurry of interviews, including a one-on-one with Tim Russert for Meet the Press—so many, in fact, that Obama started to lose his voice.

Obama had never used a TelePrompter when he went to his first rehearsal. According to Mendell, “Obama was kind of winging it—that is how he was doing things back then.” But this was different. Michael Sheehan, a veteran speech coach, offered Obama his standard tips, including how to handle the three competing audiences the night of the speech—the screaming party delegates in the hall, the giant JumboTron screen that would beam his image and words out to the far reaches of the hall, and the millions sitting in front of their television sets.

Obama had three hour-long rehearsals at the practice podium in front of blue velvet curtains in what was normally the Celtics locker room. His initial run-throughs weren’t particularly strong; he seemed to be adjusting to his new setting. But he soon found his groove. Jon Favreau, then working as Kerry’s speechwriter, who later became Obama’s chief speechwriter, remembered watching his future boss and being awestruck by his passion and charisma. He knew immediately that Obama was different from everyone else he had watched rehearse that week.

Unfortunately, Favreau also had to deliver some tough news to the future senator. One of the lines from Obama’s text was virtually identical to one in Kerry’s acceptance speech. Obama’s draft read: “We’re not red states and blue states; we’re all Americans, standing up together for the red, white, and blue.” Kerry’s speech included the line, “Maybe some just see us divided into those red states and blue states, but I see us as one America: red, white, and blue.”

After Favreau told Obama that he would have to drop the line, Obama replied peevishly, “Are you telling me I have to take this line out?” Favreau remembered stuttering, unsure how to respond. Axelrod could see that Obama was frustrated, so he grabbed Favreau, quickly introduced himself, and asked him to step out into the hallway where they could discuss the line.

The two spent the next few minutes rewriting the sentence, changing it to: “We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.” Axelrod and Favreau had nipped the problem in the bud before it erupted into a larger issue. At the time, neither knew that it would be the first of many such collaborations between them.

Obama awoke at 6:00 a.m. the day of the speech. After a big breakfast, a rally sponsored by the League of Conservation Voters, and a quick lunch gobbled down between interviews, Obama retired to his room for a breather. The break didn’t last long. There was a last-minute crisis. His wife, Michelle, didn’t like his tie, so Axelrod grabbed Gibbs’s tie literally off his neck.

When Obama finally made it into the car that would ferry him to the FleetCenter, he relaxed the way he knew best. He called his grandmother, Madelyn, in Hawaii, and his two daughters, Sasha and Malia.

With a sea of Democrats cheering him on, and millions more watching on television, Barack Obama walked onto the national stage—literally and figuratively—beaming from ear to ear. From his vantage point in front of the crowd, all he could see was a sea of placards with “Obama” painted on them. For seventeen minutes Obama mesmerized his audience, first with his biography and then with a ringing endorsement of John Kerry—2,297 words in all. He told America the meaning of his African name, Barack: “blessed”; he spoke about the importance of bipartisanship and the need to provide opportunity to all Americans.

His delivery started slowly and was a little stiff. His long-time Chicago friend Valerie Jarrett was so nervous that she “was digging [her] nails into [her] hands.” But then, Rideout recalls, a metaphorical light bulb went on. “His shoulders settled down and this wave of support from the crowd looked like it literally washed over him...Something happened to him physically.” His polish, poise, and preacher-like cadences drew in the crowd. It was clear that he was comfortable in his own skin, unlike so many other politicians. One of his Harvard Law professors, Christopher Edley, later said, “He was almost freakishly self-possessed and centered...He doesn’t strive for an Everyman quality: he is relaxed but never chummy, gracious rather than familiar. His surface is so smooth, his movements so easy and fluid, his voice so consistent and well pitched that he can seem like an actor playing a politician, too implausibly effortless to be doing it for real.” Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter recalled the evening and his energy, saying, “I remember standing behind him and watching his feet move. It was like he was dancing at the podium. His feet were moving to the rhythm of the speech.”

Obama was interrupted with applause thirty-three times. The reviews were unanimous: it was a barnburner. People immediately compared his oratorical skills to those of John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Martin Luther King Jr. He was mobbed by crowds, not just that evening, but also every day thereafter. The throngs at his senate campaign events regularly shot up from hundreds to thousands. His political future would be forever changed. As Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois put it, “Without that Boston speech, there is a question whether Barack would be...[president] today. His public image changed because of that speech.”


About the Authors 

Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of nine books. The recipient of thirty-three honorary degrees, she has been chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is a regular contributor toPolitico, and has appeared onReal Time with Bill Maher, Anderson Cooper 360, The Daily Show, Tavis Smiley, and PBS's NewsHour. Follow her on Twitter at @DrMFBerry.

Josh Gottheimer was presidential speechwriter and special assistant to President Bill Clinton; appears on MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN as a political analyst; edited Ripples of Hope: Great American Civil Rights Speeches; and is executive president of the global PR firm Burson-Marsteller. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshGottheimer and visit his website.