Four years ago, Barack Obama strode through faux-Greek columns at Denver’s Mile High stadium, before 84,000 ecstatic fans in the stands and millions more watching on television around the globe, to accept the Democratic nomination.
In Joe Biden-speak, it was a big (expletive) deal.
On Thursday night, Mr. Obama will speak before fewer than 20,000 people at Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena. The TV audience is likely to be down sharply from the modern record of 38.4 million Americans who watched in 2008. And there will be no Greek columns.
Just a man and his teleprompter.
That makes Mr. Obama’s task on Thursday both easier and harder. If expectations for the speech are much lower than in 2008, Mr. Obama must also address the disappointment his presidency has brought to all those voters who believed that, yes, he could.
While he must reignite enthusiasm among the Democratic base, Mr. Obama’s biggest challenge on Thursday is getting all those swing voters in swing states who placed a bet on his presidency in 2008 to believe it will pay off if they vote for him again.
So, here are five things (among many others) Mr. Obama must do when he takes the stage tonight:
He must ace the “better off” argument
With unemployment above 8 per cent, median income down $4,000 (U.S.), the federal debt surpassing $16-trillion and house prices still in the trough, Mr. Obama cannot tell Americans they are objectively better off than they were four years ago. Few of them believe it. But he can make a credible case that they are better off than they would otherwise be had it not been for his swift action to deal with the financial crisis and the measures he has taken to lay the foundation for future growth.
He must explain the “long game” he is playing
Americans will not feel the full effect of Mr. Obama’s health-care reform law, education policies and investments in research and renewable energy for years to come. That has made it harder for many voters who are struggling now to buy into those policies. Republicans argue that this is money down the drain and that Washington should cut taxes instead. Mr. Obama must counter that claim.
He must show he is serious about the debt
This won’t make the Democratic base happy – since it considers the deficit largely irrelevant – but Mr. Obama must show that he considers reducing the federal debt a top priority. Whether the analogy is accurate or not, the suburban voters who will decide the election know what happens when their household budgets get out of whack. Bill Clinton summed it up on Wednesday: “We’ve got to deal with this big long-term debt problem or it will deal with us.”
He must promise to compromise
The base won’t like this either. They think Mr. Obama has spent far too much of his first term doing just that. Yet, Mr. Obama’s biggest selling point with swing voters in 2008 was his promise of post-partisanship. If he is re-elected, Mr. Obama will in all likelihood face a Republican House of Representatives and possibly Senate. He gave up on trying to work with Congress after his proposed “grand bargain” on the debt fell apart a year ago. The GOP argues he gave up long before that, and was never really interested in doing a deal to reform Medicare and Social Security. Can he persuade voters that he is now?
He must remind Americans why they like him so much
This should be the easy part. But for a guy who once responded to a girlfriend’s “I love you” with a “Thank you,” it is obviously harder than he made it look in 2008. It has been a while since Mr. Obama gave a speech that brought down the house. You can bet that he will summon all his charm to do so on Thursday. But after Mr. Clinton had many murmuring “I wish he were running,” the President needs voters to have forgotten about Bubba by the end of his speech.