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How Obama's Final State of the Union Echoed His 2004 Convention Speech

Jan 12, 2016

In the final moments of the last State of the Union of his Presidency, Barack Obama returned Tuesday to the lofty idealism that propelled him into the national spotlight at the 2004 Democratic Convention.

Obama's keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention called for national unity, an end to the divisions between "red state" and "blue state" mentalities that divides America, and a renewed commitment to hope as the engine of American politics. "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America," he said, before adding:

The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?

That was the speech that launched the then-state Senator from Illinois to national fame, beginning the speculation about an Obama presidency and anchoring him a rising star within the Democratic party.

On Tuesday, in his last State of the Union as President, Obama returned to similar language and themes, including similar parallel sentence construction, repeated vignettes of ordinary Americans, the same examples that subvert the entrenched political divisions that have taken root in a polarized political climate.

Read it for yourself:

Our brand of democracy is hard. But I can promise that a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen — inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far. Voices that help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love...

...I see it in the worker on the assembly line who clocked extra shifts to keep his company open, and the boss who pays him higher wages to keep him on board.

I see it in the Dreamer who stays up late to finish her science project, and the teacher who comes in early because he knows she might someday cure a disease.

I see it in the American who served his time, and dreams of starting over — and the business owner who gives him that second chance. The protester determined to prove that justice matters, and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe.

I see it in the soldier who gives almost everything to save his brothers, the nurse who tends to him ’til he can run a marathon, and the community that lines up to cheer him on.

It’s the son who finds the courage to come out as who he is, and the father whose love for that son overrides everything he’s been taught.

I see it in the elderly woman who will wait in line to cast her vote as long as she has to; the new citizen who casts his for the first time; the volunteers at the polls who believe every vote should count, because each of them in different ways know how much that precious right is worth.

That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. Because of you. I believe in you. That’s why I stand here confident that the State of our Union is strong.

The irony is that this hopeful rhetoric suggests a national unity that even Obama acknowledges never quite materialized. Earlier in his speech Tuesday night, Obama said his failure to stitch together the American political divide was among the few regrets of his presidency. "Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention," he said. "It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better."

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