This column was originally published at theGrio.
Almost immediately after then-Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama stepped away from the podium at Boston’s Fleet Center during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the pundits predicted his brilliant keynote speech would catapult him into a successful run for president of the United States.
As it turned out, they were prescient. Now, eight years later, President Obama returns to the podium tonight to deliver yet another speech at the Democratic National Convention. In the intervening eight years, the nation is so much different and, in many ways, not so changed at all.
This is a story about then and now. It begins with boundless optimism, born of the rosy afterglow following Obama’s 2004 speech that some wanted to believe heralded a post-racial period in American history. Of course, that’s not how the story has unfolded. Indeed, since that speech, nothing about Obama’s time on the national stage has suggested a narrowing of racial concerns in the nation.
Quite the contrary. As President Obama’s ongoing re-election campaign demonstrates, race remains a powerful and divisive force in American politics and life. And despite President Obama’s efforts to ignore or transcend its grip, as outlined in his 2004 speech, racism continues to define him and his administration.
Is it possible that anyone could have predicted all that has transpired? How could they have known? At the time of the speech, Obama was a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Hardly anyone outside of Chicago knew or could pronounce his name. Going from a stirring keynote address at the DNC to the White House is, as he titled that speech, the audacity of hope.
After being informed in early July 2004 by the Kerry campaign that he would be the keynote speaker on the second night of the convention, Obama spent weeks writing in longhand what he wanted to say. There was a lot he wanted to cram into the allotted 20 minutes, including his personal narrative and his support for the party’s ticket—Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, a senator from North Carolina.
Relatively few Americans actually watched the speech as it occurred, because the commercial networks didn’t broadcast it. Some 9 million people, a small number for television, saw it on the combined Public Broadcasting System and cable outlets like CNN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN.
Since then, however, countless millions have watched snippets or recorded versions on YouTube or elsewhere on the Internet, giving that speech a kind of you-were-there immortality. It’s as if everyone who has seen the speech was one of the delegates in the Fleet Center, waving the blue-and-white signs and chanting “Obama!”
In the speech itself, Obama tapped into the campaign themes. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America,” he shouted like a Baptist preacher. “There’s the United States of America.”
He touched the right buttons of faith, family, devotion to shared values, and respect for national unity, as he eschewed divisive wedge issues.
“We worship an awesome God in the blue states and we don’t like federal agents poking around our liberties in the red states,” he said to cheers. “We coach Little League in the blue states, and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
Most revealingly, Obama used his personal story, his interracial and foreign heritage, to great advantage. He talked about education and the role it played in his personal development and how he rose from poverty through hard work. And he linked it to the role of government to help make life better for those who need it.
When he finished, many in the audience wiped tears from their cheeks. And the political chattering classes anointed him as the Democrats’ rising star. A trembling and emotional MSNBC host Chris Matthews wasted no time, telling a cable television audience, “I have to tell you, [I have] a little chill in my legs right now. That is an amazing moment. A keynoter like I have never heard.”
Then, a few minutes later, he claimed the camera to declare, “I have seen the first black president there. … that speech was a piece of work.”
Matthews was, perhaps, the first to publicly link Obama with the White House off the strength of that speech. But he wasn’t the only one, nor the last.
Reflecting back from eight years ago, it seems as if the part of the nation that cheered Obama’s 2004 speech believed what it wanted to believe. For sure, there was a part of the nation lurking and plotting in the shadows.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates makes very clear in a recent article, “Fear of a Black President” in The Atlantic, racism has shadowed the Obama administration from the moment it became clear he would be the Democrats’ nominee. No matter how hard candidate and then President Obama tried to avoid the issue of race, his opponents wouldn’t allow it.
The rise of the Tea Party conservatives ensured it. Their early opposition to the new president amounted to open racial hostility, designed to render his every effort unworkable in the minds of white voters.
For the most part, those media stars and political analysts who were so quick to praise and congratulate Obama after his speech in Boston seemed slow to recognize, report, or repudiate the underlying racism associated with the political opposition he met once in Washington.
In a very real sense, little about Obama has changed since he burst on the national scene with his 2004 DNC speech.
He almost certainly won’t denounce the appeals to racial fears that have stood in his way. It’s unlikely he’s going to argue that conservative efforts to suppress votes through controversial voter identification laws in largely urban, poor, and minority regions are a not-so-subtle attack on black voting rights. I doubt he will draw attention to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who infamously announced that making the president a one-termer was his party’s “single most important” goal.
After all, the president is running for re-election. Such obvious truth telling would destroy the Obama narrative. He’s not an angry black man, and white voters are essential to his return to the White House.
What we have learned over the past eight years says less about Obama and more about those of us who wanted to believe in his message. We have changed as a hopeful collective of believers, but the world around us exists as it has always spun us around. What Obama said in Boston was true as far as what we hoped for, but never was what we saw and knew around us. That speech was aspirational, not impending reality.
Perhaps, in the 20-20 clarity of hindsight, we now see that it wasn’t Obama who failed to deliver his lofty visions and promises. Rather, it was we, as a nation of his believers, who were naïve enough to believe it was happening at all.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.