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Obama's speech: Prepare to be underwhelmed

Barack Obama has given some great speeches since his national debut as the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Don't expect his speech Thursday night in Charlotte to be one of them.

This is not a moment to announce his arrival on the national political scene. Nor will this speech be anything like the Philadelphia speech of May 2008, where he explained how racial identity shaped his life and the fate of the nation. Because asking to be returned to the Oval Office for a second term is a task quite different from asking for the first four years, Thursday's speech may not even look much like Mr. Obama's acceptance speech four years ago at Denver's Invesco Field.

Expect the president to instead articulate his "Forward" campaign slogan by making the case that, while the country and especially its economic situation are not in great shape, things would have been far worse if not for the critical decisions he made, especially early on, including the stimulus package and the auto bailout. In effect, Mr. Obama will be asking voters to stick with him, much in the way the man he replaced, George W. Bush, did eight years ago when seeking his second term.

Indeed, with each passing month the 2012 campaign bears more and more resemblance to 2004, doesn't?

Substitute out Mr. Bush, the Republicans and foreign policy for Mr. Obama, the Democrats and domestic-economic policy, and the parallels are many: An embattled incumbent with approval ratings hovering near 50 percent — not bad, but certainly not great — who promised to heal the nation's wounds and unify it has failed to do so, asking the nation four years later to "stay the course" with his current policies; a wealthy, stiff and out-of-touch challenger from Massachusetts, historically liberal by his own party standards, who struggles to connect with voters but picks a young upstart running mate to infuse some vitality into his campaign; a rigid electoral map in which very few states are likely to change, thereby giving the incumbent a structural advantage.

So if past is prologue, put your money on Mr. Obama to win — but win narrowly.

To earn another four years, Mr. Obama must defend his first four. Expect him Thursday night to emphasize foreign policy more than previous Democratic presidential nominees have. Ending the Iraq war was popular, and the killing of Osama bin Laden brought many Americans relief. (In his acceptance speech, Mr. Romney made no mention of Iraq, Afghanistan, bin Laden or military veterans.)

The president's economic record will be tougher to explain. Mr. Obama and his economic advisers shouldn't have promised to get unemployment down below 8 percent even if, as they argue, they did so without knowing the full extent of the economic collapse in the final few months before Mr. Obama took office. (Gross domestic product growth in the fourth quarter of 2008 was -6.2 percent on an annualized basis, and job losses reached nearly 600,000 in January 2009, the highest total in 34 years.)

Expect Vice President Joe Biden to handle a lot of the dirty work Wednesday night, continuing the campaign's desire to depict Mitt Romney as an economic royalist who embodies so much of what's wrong with the American economy, from a concentration of wealth to the corporate domination of our economy and our politics. Earlier the same evening, Mr. Biden will get an assist from Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland's 8th District, who has been given a prime time speaking slot to critique the budget plan of his House Banking Committee colleague and GOP vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan.

Polls coming out of the Republican convention last week in Tampa show a slight bump for the Romney-Ryan ticket. To counteract that bounce — built more out of critiques of the president than any real affirmative, long-term vision the Republicans are offering — Mr. Obama must do two things Thursday night: Make the strongest possible case that Americans made the right choice by picking him four years ago, and explain what exactly he plans to do moving "forward."

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is Twitter: @schaller67.

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