Obama’s speech tonight could not avoid harkening back to the one from eight years ago. Not only did he repeat some of its same lines—about his grandfather fighting in “Patton’s Army” and his grandmother working on “a bomber assembly line”—he returned to some of its same themes. Just as he did in 2004 and then, as the party’s presidential nominee in 2008, Obama talked about hope triumphing over cynicism and the power of people to effect change. But he also knew that too much optimism would ring hollow after the last four years—and the most striking about the speech was its humility.
When Obama acknowledged that the times had changed since 2004, that back then he was “just a candidate” but now “I’m the president,” the delegates, who spent the several hours before Obama’s speech breaking into arena-rattling chants of “Fired Up Ready to Go,” took the line as a boast and cheered. But Obama’s next line—about how, as president, he now knows “what it means to send young Americans into battle” and holding “in my arms the mothers and fathers who didn’t return”—made it clear that he was trying to say something else. Once, Obama wowed a Democratic convention with the prospect of almost unimaginable possibility. Now, he was talking to them about hard-earned experience.