Lessons from the 2004 Democratic Convention: Obama’s Speech

Sometimes the most important speech at the convention isn’t delivered by the nominee.

In 2004, a state senator from Illinois turned the convention stage into a launch pad. Barack Obama’s speech that night would transform the arc of American politics and catapult him to the White House just four years later. This series was produced by Matt Spolar, in partnership with Politico.

For teachers
  • Producer: Matthew Spolar
  • Editor: Brian Kamerzel
  • Associate Producer: Victor Couto

For Educators


This six-minute video takes students “behind the stage” at political party conventions by interviewing the convention manager and speechwriting team who launched Barack Obama’s national political career by choosing him to make the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Deconstructing how conventions function as a complex messaging operations involving the coordination of hundreds of speakers, the video provides students with insight into one of the most important moments in modern American politics, and would be useful in any sequence of lessons focused on the election of presidents or modern campaigning methods.

Background reading

There hasn’t been a contested national convention after the first ballot since 1952, so the need to provide drama often falls on the keynote speaker to deliver a message that isn’t forgotten when the clapping stops.

The standout keynote speaker of the last 20 years was a “young guy out of Chicago” named Barack Obama who spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

At the time, Obama was a two-term state senator from Illinois, running for a U.S. Senate seat. He was hardly a national figure.

But his demonstrated talent of eloquently inspiring voters on the campaign trail impressed presidential candidate John Kerry and convention managers enough that they decided to take a chance.

Obama was already known for writing his own speeches, in his own way. His first draft came in at 24 minutes – some 17 minutes longer than his allotted time slot.

But the speech was so impressive that his handlers at the convention eventually settled on a 17-minute version, and then went to work on his delivery skills.

Obama, aided by a speech coach, proved a quick study. But even those who had worked with him for days were stunned by how masterfully he delivered his speech with an easygoing style and grace that brought down the house.

Lesson Plan 1: 2004 Democratic Convention: The Importance of the Keynote Speech

Students will learn how the communications professionals at national party conventions choose speakers and coordinate messaging, and how Barack Obama was chosen in 2004 to make the keynote speech that launched his national political career and changed the course of American history.

  • How the major political parties, unable to rely on the spectacle of a contested convention to draw public interest, rely instead on rhetoric and oratory as a way of attracting viewers.
  • How parties choose a roster of speakers and coordinate the messages conveyed by those speakers during a national convention.
  • How Barack Obama was chosen to be the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and how that speech launched his career in national politics.
Essential questions
  • What was the status of Barack Obama’s career when he was chosen to make the 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention?
  • Why was Obama chosen to make the keynote speech? How did this choice contribute to the party’s goals for the convention and the campaign?
  • What two errors do speakers tend to make when using teleprompters?
  • How did New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s keynote speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention demonstrate the importance of message coordination during conventions?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Civ.5.9-12.Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.
  • AP Government and Politics
    • Unit 5: Political ParticipationTopic 5.3: Political Parties
      Topic 5.8: Electing a President
      Topic 5.9: Congressional Elections
      Topic 5.10: Modern Campaigns
    • Topic 5.10: Modern CampaignsSkill 1.E: Explain how political processes apply to different scenarios in context.