PHILADELPHIA– President Barack Obama’s three Democratic convention speeches have, in succession, launched his national career, thrust him into the Oval Office and secured him a second term. On Wednesday, he’ll work during his fourth marquee convention address to ensure those earlier efforts weren’t for naught.
In his prime-time pitch for Hillary Clinton, Obama plans to argue not only for the Democratic nominee, but for the progressive policies that he’s spent the last eight years enacting — an agenda that will depend largely on his successor to maintain.
His message, according to those helping him prepare for the speech: Don’t flush everything away with Donald Trump.
Obama plans to draw on his long and complicated relationship with Clinton, which began as a rivalry but has evolved into what the pair hopes can become the first elected Democrat-to-Democrat presidential transition in modern history.
In pre-convention interviews, Obama has been frank about his relationship with Clinton, admitting they aren’t “bosom buddies.”
“We don’t go vacationing together,” Obama said during a CBS interview Sunday. “I think that I’ve got a pretty clear-eyed sense of both her strengths and her weaknesses. And what I would say would be that this is somebody who knows as much about domestic and foreign policy as anybody.”
“She’s not always flashy. And there are better speech-makers,” he said. “But she knows her stuff.”
Those stylistic weaknesses led convention organizers to program prime-time speeches from other high-profile and well-liked Democrats, like Obama, Vice President Joe Biden (who also speaks Wednesday), first lady Michelle Obama, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Obama is the first president since Bill Clinton to deliver a convention speech in his final year in office — George W. Bush skipped his party’s 2008 meeting — and is expected to play a large role in the campaign this fall.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll this month showed Obama’s approval at 56% — the highest point since early in his first term.
“Fifty-six percent is very high in this day and age,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s former senior adviser and current CNN senior political analyst. “This is the first time we’re going to have a president actively campaigning for a nominee of his own party. And it’s a popular president.”
But Obama remains polarizing among Republicans, and it’s unclear how well his approval ratings will translate to votes for Hillary Clinton.
Biden, who himself toyed with a presidential run last year, plans to offer an economic argument for a Hillary Clinton presidency during his speech ahead of Obama Wednesday night.
The vice president “will reflect on his experience over the last eight years and over his career,” said a Biden aide, adding that he will “outline why Secretary Clinton is the only candidate with a record of standing up for the middle class.”
The first lady’s speech on Monday drew instant praise for its unifying message and heartfelt description of life in the White House. Like her husband, the first lady was reluctant to mention Trump by name, instead using obvious references to the billionaire candidate to cast him as temperamentally unfit for the White House.
That’s a tactic Obama himself employed during his first campaign appearance with Clinton in July, steadfastly avoiding naming the Republican nominee who he insists will not become president.
And it’s an approach he’s expected to utilize again on Wednesday when he delivers remarks to what’s likely to be the largest remaining television audience of his presidency.
Obama and Trump have an unusually acrimonious personal history for a president and one of his potential successors.
Trump’s extended questioning of Obama’s citizenship pushed the White House to release the President’s birth certificate. Later it led to a cutting public takedown of Trump that left the real estate tycoon fuming.
The resentment has only amplified during this year’s campaign. Amid his takedowns of Obama’s record, Trump has cast darker aspersions about Obama’s ties to Islamic terrorism.
Work on Obama’s speech began as early as late June, and was expected to continue until the moments before Obama takes the stage around 10 p.m. ET Wednesday. The presidential schedule for the days leading up to the remarks was largely cleared of events, aside from regular meetings with the defense and Treasury secretaries.
Preparation went “around the clock,” according to White House spokesman Eric Schultz. As before most of his important speeches, Obama has drafted portions of his address longhand on yellow legal pads. He’s gone back and forth with members of his speechwriting team, offering handwritten revisions to drafts of the address.
Among his team’s reference points: the speech Obama delivered 12 years ago at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. That address launched Obama on a path to the White House — and will act as a bookend for an increasingly reflective commander in chief.
“I feel as if I’m a better president than I’ve ever been,” Obama told CBS. “The experience has made me sharper, clearer about how to get stuff done. My team is operating at a — a peak level. And we’re really proud of what we’re going to do, and we’re going to run through the tape. But I also think that it’s really important for self-governance and democracy that we go through this process and I’m able to turn over the keys.”