With all of his accomplishments, it's easy to forget that only 10 years ago Barack Obama was a virtual unknown. All that changed on July 27, 2004, when Obama delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The speech turned him into a political superstar overnight and set him on the path to winning the White House in 2008.
As preparations for the four-day convention got underway, one of the decisions to be made was who would would be the keynote speaker. Obama, then a state senator from Chicago running for the U.S. Senate, was on the final list of potential speakers. He had been included despite his lack of political experience and his consistent opposition to the Iraq War, which John Kerry, the party's presidential nominee, had initially supported. Kerry himself had first become impressed with the senator after campaigning in Chicago with Obama in April. Kerry's campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, ultimately chose Obama over Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Upon learning he had been selected, Obama knew he wanted the speech to incorporate his personal story into the story of America. He also knew he wanted to write it himself. The 25-minute first draft greatly impressed his aides, but it was much too lengthy to be approved by convention officials who had originally told Obama's team that he would only speak for eight minutes. When David Axelrod, Obama's media adviser, said that was an impossible limit for a keynote address, he was told that if Obama didn't short it convention speechwriters would. After roughly two weeks of editing the speech was reduced to 17 minutes. Kerry's team became less concerned about the revised speech's length after reading its content. Final approval would come from Vicky Rideout, the woman in charge of the staff of writers responsible for reviewing approximately 200 speeches. When Rideout finally read the speech she had spent weeks inquiring about she felt it needed more fine tuning. Among the changes was less focus on Illinois and more focus on Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards.
His state senate duties prevented Obama from flying into Boston until about 1:30 a.m. on July 25, the day before the convention began. It was a remarkable change from four years earlier, when he was depressed and almost bankrupt after Bobby Rush soundly defeated him in his run for Congress. He had initially planned to skip the 2000 convention in Los Angeles, but friends encouraged him to fly there. Unfortunately, he discovered his credit card was maxed out when he tried to rent a car at the Los Angeles airport. He was unable to receive a floor pass when he finally arrived at the convention hall and was forced to watch the proceedings on television screens around the Staples Center. The experience left him worried about what would happen in Boston.
Rehearsals did little to soothe his fears. Obama had no experience using a teleprompter or speaking to a crowd as large as the one that would fill the FleetCenter, and he had little time to learn. During his third and final one-hour rehearsal on July 26, Obama was still having difficulties. He was also unhappy about having to cut a line from his address that was thought to be too much like one in Kerry's acceptance speech.
Obama's national reputation at that time was perhaps best summed up by a headline in the July 27 Philadelphia Daily News: "Who the Heck Is This Guy?" He woke up before 6 that morning and embarked on a day of speeches and television interviews. At one point his voice became hoarse from so much talking, leaving Robert Gibbs, his chief press aide, momentarily frightened that he would be unable to give the speech. The Daily News headline notwithstanding, Obama attracted plenty of media attention that day, even when he tried to use a portable toilet outside.
There was one last hurdle before departing for the FleetCenter: wardrobe. Obama was wearing a black suit, but none of his ties satisfied his wife, Michelle. Axelrod solved the problem by visiting Gibbs' hotel room. He noticed Gibbs was about to put on a blue tie, took it from him and brought it back to Michelle, who gave it her approval.
Michelle honored her husband's request by staying with him backstage until it was time for him to speak. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin introduced Obama a few minutes after 9 p.m., and he walked out onto the stage as the 1964 Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions song "Keep On Pushing" played on the speakers. Obama's delivery was drab at first, but he soon took it to another level. Rideout recalled watching from the side of the stage and seeing Obama suddenly find his confidence: "That's when the speech took on a life of its own." Not only was he interrupted by applause a total of 33 times, some in the crowd while he spoke. Once finished, Obama walked over to his wife and hugged her. "Keep On Pushing" played once again as the couple exited the stage.
Largely anonymous 24 hours earlier, Obama had delivered an address that political analysts were describing as an instant masterpiece and was earning comparisons to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The rise in his popularity became obvious when he began a five-day, 1,600-mile tour across Illinois the day after returning from Boston. Rather than crowds of 100-200 people he had experienced before, Obama was now drawing audiences of 500-700 people. Even in heavily Republican DeKalb, Ill., he drew more than 1,000 people. Durbin accompanied Obama on most of the tour and became convinced that something bigger than a Senate race was happening.
First, of course, Obama had to win that race. His Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, had dropped out of the race in June, and state and national Republican leaders were considering such big names as former governor Jim Edgar and legendary former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka to replace him. Instead, they got right-winger Alan Keyes, a radio host - from Maryland. Obama received 70 percent of the vote on Election Day - the biggest victory margin ever in Illinois - although Kerry failed to unseat President George W. Bush.
Obama was still a phenomenon in late 2006. By then he had appeared on magazine covers; been profiled by the likes of Time, Newsweek, Men's Vogue, Harper's and New York magazine; seen his book The Audacity of Hope reach number two on the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists; and was the hottest speaker on the campaign trail for that year's midterm elections. In February 2007, he declared his candidacy for president during a 21-minute speech in front of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. Despite the freezing temperature, more than 15,000 people attended. Obama defeated Republican John McCain in a landslide in 2008 to become America's first black president. He not only won reelection in 2012 but became the first president since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 - and the first Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 - to twice win at least 51 percent of the popular vote.