What Barack Obama Needs to Say in His Democratic National Convention Speech

Advice from a former presidential speechwriter on how the president can convince voters he should be re-elected.

President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at Capital University on Aug. 21, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio.
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Noam Neusner, a partner at 30 Point Strategies, is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush , as well as for former Gov. Mitt Romney in his 2008 presidential campaign. He's also a former chief economics correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.

We know, based on the last two nights of the Democratic convention, that love is stronger than hate. Those who love President Obama and support him are able to exude far more energy and demonstrate greater commitment to him than those who dislike him. Where in Tampa the Republican convention seemed largely listless on television, the gathering in Charlotte is raucous, emotional, and deeply engaged.

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This is a great asset for President Obama, for two distinct reasons. First, as a speaker, the audience will be strongly on his side. The applause lines will get big applause. And that energy will translate to the people watching on television—which matters. Second, it gives him the same advantage that George W. Bush enjoyed in 2004: positive energy and momentum, even in the face of a forceful opposition. Obama's supporters are fighting for something, whereas Mitt Romney's are fighting against it.

That said, there is one problem Obama must face, and he must do it in his speech tonight: While everyone in Charlotte is a true believer, a majority of the nation is not. The polls show Obama on the wrong side of every key metric of popular opinion: right track/wrong track, approval/disapproval, deserves re-election/doesn't deserve it. At this stage, the only key poll he wins (and it depends on who's doing the polling) is the head to head with Romney.

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So, when Obama takes the stage, and you see the cheering and emotional outpouring of support, remember this: His target audience isn't in Charlotte. The target audience is sitting in their living rooms, staying up to watch this speech. Their arms are folded, the eyebrows are arched and they are asking themselves one big question: Why should I vote for this guy again?

So here's what the president should do:

  1. He should do a search and replace on every one of the key phrases that he used in the 2008 stump, convention, and election night speeches. The Republicans have nailed Obama for repeating, almost word for word, key phrases from those speeches, now in 2012. The underlying problem is that for Obama's audience, it's not 2008 anymore. It's 2012, and four years later, the future tense promises and to-do lists need to be retired. It's time for accomplishment: challenges met, problems solved. That means new language.
  2. He should stop chiseling marble. The president's rhetoric has an arching, grand, and sometimes vain quality. It sometimes feels like he is searching for the phrases that will be etched into the stone of the Obama Monument, when it's built on the Washington Mall. But as we saw with the first lady's tender speech on Tuesday night, the best way for the president to connect is with the ordinary language and experiences of ordinary people.
  3. He should frame his accomplishments as consistent with the American experience. Too often, Obama has set himself apart and above his predecessors, and I'm not just talking about his swipes at President Bush. He openly crowed that no prior Democratic president was able to deliver on some kind of health insurance entitlement, but he did. It's true, but that makes the accomplishment seem like an outlier, inconsistent with what the country wants and has been willing to do before him. Most Americans dislike Obamacare, and that opposition has only hardened. There is a way for Obama to set that victory into the context of America's historical experience, which undeniably has seen entitlements expand over time. His message should be simple: "I know there are many of you who have questions over what this benefit will mean. There were questions about Social Security and there were questions about Medicare. I have to admit that I had questions about the drug benefit that my predecessor added to Medicare. But in the end, those questions were answered, the problems resolved, and America became, in the words of one of my predecessors, a kinder, gentler place. Every president owes this nation his or her commitment to build on what was done before. Not tear it down. I've spent four years building on the work of others. And in the next four, I will continue to build America on the foundations we have all inherited."