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How Obama’s 2016 DNC Speech Bookended His First

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On the latest episode of Keepin’ It 1600, Dan Pfeiffer and Jon Favreau recapped the Democratic National Convention. They also took a close look at their former boss, Barack Obama, and his Wednesday-night speech, which Favreau helped prepare. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Jon Favreau: I’m not going to pretend that there’s any type of objective analysis of this speech for this podcast.

But as someone who is involved in these conversations and some of the writing and the drafting and editing and all that — and who [has known] him forever — Barack Obama, for a long time, has thought of this as the bookend to the 2004 convention speech he gave. Which, in that speech, I always think of it as [a speech where] he basically tried to redefine patriotism — as not just about flag-waving, but about the values that bind us together in this country. Part of that is [that] someone with the name Barack Hussein Obama can stand there on a national stage and address the convention and become a U.S. senator and eventually a president.

That was sort of the theme of the 2004 speech and a lot of those themes came up again, or at least we wanted a lot of those themes to come up again in 2016. And they’re even more pertinent now than they were in 2004, because now the Democratic candidate is running against someone who is a threat to all of those values that [Obama] talked about in 2004. I remember me and Cody Keenan — the president’s chief speechwriter — we were looking at that ’04 speech, which David Axelrod often tells us to do. And almost every word of that speech is antithetical to everything that Donald Trump has done this entire campaign.

Dan Pfeiffer: It’s a running joke in Obamaland that whenever we’re struggling, either in the beginning of a memo or the beginning of a meeting, Axelrod will say, “rereading the 2004 convention speech…,” or “thinking about the…,” or “we should go back to the values of the 2004 convention speech.” And we laugh about it, but what is true is there is this thread between [the speeches]. What I thought Cody and the president did so brilliantly, with help from you obviously, was [making this speech] the final chapter of that. Each of those convention speeches between ’04, ’08, ’12, and ’16 … [there is] a line went through them, and they captured the final chapter in that. It was obviously very powerful and emotional for us, and then even Republicans, who do not love Barack Obama, on Twitter were very complimentary of that speech and just lamenting the fact that the party of Reagan had ceded American exceptionalism, optimism, patriotism to the Democrats and Obama captured it so perfectly.

J.F.: And the line in the speech where he says, “what we heard in Cleveland wasn’t particularly Republican and it especially wasn’t conservative,” we wanted that line in there to help get that reaction. The idea was to give a speech that Republicans and all these “Never Trump” people that we’ve come to know on Twitter and everywhere else could at least not hate … because Donald Trump has provided that kind of opening with his candidacy. And I think the president really wanted to reach out to not only Democrats, not only independents, but to Republicans who are uncomfortable with the notion of Trump and say, you know, “there is something bigger in this country that holds us together.”

The way this whole thing came together [was] the president and Cody had a lot of conversations together about this, as often happens with a big speech. You know, Cody went off and started drafting and then the things that were probably there from the beginning I think [was] all the stuff he said about Hillary Clinton, which the president had done when he endorsed her a couple weeks ago.

But towards the end of that process, basically when you get to the part of the speech where the president says, “and that’s maybe the most fundamental thing in this election, how we define democracy.” Everything from there to the end the president really worked on, wrote, thought about in the final week. And he was up late, as he often is, just writing and writing and writing to try to nail that ending, which I think he did really, really well.

I landed in D.C. on Monday and the first time I saw him about the speech he had, like, the latest draft in front of him on Monday and he’s like, “I want to go give this speech right now.” He’s like, “we should keep polishing and editing but I kind of want to give this speech right now.” He was excited. And whenever he’s really excited to give a speech a couple days in advance you know it’s probably going to be a pretty good speech.

D.P.: It means he knows he’s nailed it, right? He knows what he wants to say and he needs to figure out how to say it, and the rest is just line edits and fine-tuning it.

A couple of thoughts on the speech generally: One is, one option for the speech would have been to focus a lot more on his own accomplishments. It’s his last big speech on the main stage as president, the last chance to sort of do legacy work. And he spent only a small fraction of that speech talking about what he has done and spent the rest of it talking about why it’s important to elect Hillary Clinton and defeat Donald Trump. And that says a lot about how seriously he takes this election, and he understands that his legacy will not be defined by this speech, but it will be defined by Hillary Clinton getting [elected], Trump — not just Trump, but Trumpism — being defeated, and the policies that he put in place being built upon and cemented going forward.

The other thing I thought was powerful was when he talked about the American people carrying him through this, and then it was about them. And the tribute to the organizers. And that had this very ’08 feel that was very emotional to us who were there. We all got a chance to watch at least most of it together. You and me and a bunch of other people who were there in the very beginning of this journey.

And then I had to run and do CNN. I was on with David Axelrod and the first question went to both Axe and I, and I got choked up. Axe was definitely choked up. I think I probably hid it a little better than him, but, you know, this was 10 years of our life that we’ve worked for this man, and to be very proud of it and proud of just the experiences that we all shared together and to be able to share that at the end, but do it in a way that leaves you not just thinking about how great we were and how great he was but, you know, how fucking important it is to elect Hillary Clinton, which I think that speech was a success.

J.F.: He was worried that when he got to that line about the organizers and everyone who has been part of this campaign and the journey along the way, he was worried that he might get choked up there, but he kept it together. I cannot say the same for myself.

D.P.: Yeah, not me.