A legacy on the line

A legacy on the line
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In 2004, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe mullahs seek to control uncontrolled chaos Poll: Majority of Democrats thinks Obama was better president than Washington Obama urges Americans to get health coverage in new holiday video MORE burst on to the national political scene with a soaring keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. 

Twelve years later, Obama will place a bookend on his career when he takes the stage at his party’s convention for the final time as president. 


This time he’ll have a decidedly different task: persuading the nation to elect Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Trump supporters at Pa. rally 'upset' after Democrats introduce impeachment articles Hillary Clinton documentary to premiere at Sundance MORE as his successor.

“In a way, this year’s speech will be a bookend to 2004,” said former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau, who helped him tweak that speech as a member of then-Democratic nominee John KerryJohn Forbes KerryMellman: Looking to Iowa The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - A crucial week on impeachment Biden rallies with John Kerry in early primary states MORE’s staff.

“And if he talks about the moment we’re in, the choice we face, and why she’s the best candidate to continue the progress we’ve made over the last eight years, he’ll have done his job.”

It’s a major moment for a president who desperately wants to keep the White House in Democrats’ hands and out of the hands of Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Lawmakers dismiss Chinese retaliatory threat to US tech MORE, who raised his political star by questioning Obama’s citizenship.

If Clinton loses, Obama will see much of his agenda rolled back, changing his own legacy.

A victory by Clinton, in contrast, would make Obama the first president to see his party extend control of the White House to three terms since Ronald Reagan.

Even though his name isn’t on the ballot, Obama personally relishes the fight of the campaign. He began drafting the speech himself a few weeks ago, according to a White House official. Aides said he planned to work on it through the weekend in the lead-up to the Democratic National Convention. 

The speech will be a chance for the president to reflect on his accomplishments in the White House and make the case to Democrats and undecided voters for Clinton, the party’s presumptive nominee.

White House aides say he’ll do that by vouching for Clinton’s readiness to serve as commander in chief while drawing a contrast with Trump. 

“It’s so important that the next president is somebody with the judgment, skill, experience, leadership to build on that progress,” press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters last week. “Our country is more prosperous and safer than when President Obama took office, and the president believes strongly that we can’t afford to flush that progress down the drain.”

That type of endorsement, in front of a prime-time television audience, could give a major boost to Clinton, who is struggling to establish trust with voters.

“Who better to explain what it takes to be president than the person who has served as president for eight years?” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a presidential historian at the University of Houston. “Trump won’t have a president to stand up for him. Only Clinton will have that advantage.”

A dozen years ago, Obama was an Illinois state senator who all but announced himself as a contender for the Oval Office by telling his by-his-own-bootstraps tale as the son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother. He made a rallying cry for national unity, urging a divided country to have “the audacity of hope.”

Obama presented himself — “a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too” — as evidence his vision of the country is achievable. 

In Philadelphia and this fall, Obama will use his speaking skills to help Clinton light a fire under Democratic voters.

Alyssa Mastromonaco, who served as Obama’s deputy chief of staff, said “all he needs to do for [Clinton] is get the Dems fired up about being Dems.”

“At this point, I think it’s less about testifying on her behalf and more about making the Dems feel some magic and that what they felt in 2008 is still alive and possible,” she said.

The president is expected to run through a laundry list of his accomplishments from his eight years in office: pulling the nation out of economic recession, healthcare reform, killing Osama bin Laden, the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement. 

It’s not just a victory lap, but an opportunity to validate Clinton by showcasing the times she was at his side as secretary of State.

During his first rally for Clinton this month in Charlotte, N.C., Obama offered his personal gratitude for her support after their bruising 2008 primary campaign and told the story of how she argued in favor of the bin Laden raid inside the Situation Room. 

“My faith in Hillary Clinton has always been rewarded,” Obama said. “I have had a front-row seat to her judgment, and her toughness, and her commitment to diplomacy.”

But passing the baton to Clinton could also serve as a painful reminder of Obama’s unfinished business, including his shortcomings in bridging the nation’s deep political divides.

Obama, who declared that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America” in his 2004 speech, has conceded that polarization has gotten worse, not better, during his tenure. 

“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” the president said this year in his final State of the Union address. 

“I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”

But even as the president tried to rekindle feelings of political unity that sparked his political career, he has lambasted Republicans, such as Trump, whom he sees as eroding efforts to bring the country together. 

Those divisions have been on full display over the past month, when a string of violence rekindled a searing debate over racial bias and law enforcement that has fallen along racial and partisan lines. 

If Obama has his way, it will be Clinton’s chance to try and reverse the seemingly irreversible trend of polarization. 

But she has sounded a markedly different tone than Obama, stopping well short of arguing that her election would heal partisan tensions. 

“I really believe there’s no shortcut; there’s no quick answer,” she said in a June interview with Vox.

“I think a lot of governing is the slow, hard boring of hard boards,” she added. “I don’t think there’s anything sexy, exciting, or headline-grabbing about it. I think it is getting up every day, building the relationships, finding whatever sliver of common ground you can occupy, never, ever giving up in continuing to reach out even to people who are sworn political partisan adversaries.” 

Amie Parnes contributed.