Show Us You Care, Barack

What Obama ‘08 can learn from Obama ‘04.

See Slate’s  complete Democratic Convention coverage.  

Barack Obama

In 2000, Barack Obama couldn’t even get a floor pass to the Democratic National Convention. Tomorrow he’ll be speaking before Greek columns to a crowd of 75,000 people as the party’s nominee.

In the exact middle of that trajectory was The Speech: Obama’s keynote address to the 2004 convention. We all like to say that conventions are meaningless, and Obama himself once called them nothing more than infomercials to reward wealthy contributors. Nevertheless, it was at the convention in 2004 that Barack Obama became a star. (Watch the instant analysis at the time and the speech itself, where the cutaway shots show people listening gape-mouthed.)

Watching the speech for the millionth time in my Denver hotel room the other night, I was immediately struck by Obama’s passion. He can be cerebral and aloof sometimes. (He’s trying to fix that.) But in 2004, he didn’t have that problem. He was amped up but not jumpy. He was making an argument, one that animated him, and he all but demanded your attention. If it wandered, he almost seemed to snap his fingers and say, “Listen up.”

Obama’s message was resonant because his enthusiasm was infectious. Now he faces a different task. He’s lost the element of surprise—everybody knows he can give a good speech. Now he has to apply that same enthusiasm to explaining the stakes in this election. In 2004, he talked about what people sensed in their bones. He needs to do that again, but he also needs to show voters what he senses in his bones.

In 2004, Obama set out to prove pundits and Republicans wrong. “We worship an awesome God in the blue states,” he said, “and yes, we have gay friends in the red states.” You could imagine him using the same construction Thursday to fight the celebrity rap against him. McCain appears to have had some success by characterizing Obama as an empty suit who can draw big crowds but offers no real solutions. Some 75,000 screaming people will provide images that fulfill the McCain caricature. Obama has a chance to turn that on its head. Republicans say you’re here because I’m a celebrity, he might say, but you’re really here because you believe everyone should have the right to see a doctor and go to college.

Obama says that one of his tasks for the convention is to help people understand who he is and where he came from. That’s his challenge because voters—some innocently, some not so innocently—wonder whether he shares their values. It is the weakness Hillary Clinton’s strategist Mark Penn tried to exploit, explaining in one of his strategy memos that voters would find that Obama was “not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and his values.” What’s striking about the political distance Obama has traveled since 2004 is that the idea that he was emblematic of the American dream was not something he had to prove four years ago. It was self-evident. It was one of the reasons he was speaking in the first place.

In 2004, Obama talked about the collective American dream of which he was a part. That balance has gotten out of whack. He’s been tagged, with justification, for having too much self-regard. How much of the campaign is about him and not us? Obama will work hard Thursday to sublimate himself to the larger collective goals of all Americans.

There’s one potential impediment to this plan. Obama is going to be standing in front of a row of Greek columns. This, tragically, is something of a convention trope. Bush spoke in front of columns in 2004 (and atop a presidential seal), and it looked ridiculous. It seems like an overly theatrical idea for Obama. With McCain trying to paint him as a self-styled god, the image of him standing where Zeus might will only play into this critique. Also, on aesthetic grounds, the no-drama candidate should not imperil that brand by looking like the suburban-dinner-theater candidate.

The columns and frieze echo the façade of the Lincoln Memorial, where, exactly 45 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech. This might be a subtle nod to the plain fact that Barack Obama’s candidacy is the fulfillment of part of King’s dream. Still, it’s too much. The Obama campaign doesn’t need more theatricality.

An Obama aide wrote to set me straight: “We wanted something that was simple and sober, and that’s exactly how it will appear. He will be surrounded by everyday people in keeping with the opening up of our Convention.”

Maybe that will work. But eight years ago, at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, Barack Obama was denied not only a credential but also a rental car (his credit card was rejected). Now he’s not only accepting the party’s nomination, he’s practically arriving on a chariot. (He won’t, of course, but the neoclassical theme could evoke such images.) His progress is a testament to the American dream, but the symbolism could turn into a political nightmare.