(The Root) — On Thursday night President Obama was tasked with delivering the most important speech of his tenure in office. With polls showing the 2012 presidential election increasingly close, many experts intimated that he needed to hit a home run just to stay in the game. Though widely hailed as one of the greatest orators ever to occupy the White House, the president had his work cut out for him. His approval rating regarding his handling of the economy and unemployment recently hit an all-time low. But beyond his approval rating, the president faced three formidable obstacles in his quest to be seen as the king of the convention speeches: his wife, his Democratic predecessor and himself.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver joked in a conversation with The Root that if the Democratic National Convention had ended after Michelle Obama exited the stage, the president's re-election would have been sealed that night. But just when you thought no one else could rev up the Democratic crowd the way she did, the following night former President Bill Clinton captivated the audience and critics — for nearly an hour. Both were extremely tough acts to follow, but neither is a tougher act to follow than Barack Obama himself.
Since his speech before the 2004 Democratic National Convention made him a national star, it has come to be expected that any speech Barack Obama makes will at the very least be a good speech, but more likely will be a great one. It is simply accepted as fact that just as the sky is blue, President Barack Obama is incapable of giving a bad speech, which means the bar is much higher for this president when it comes to convention speeches than it would be for many others. This week The Root interviewed experts regarding what President Obama needed to do to deliver a winning speech. Below is a report card of how he did on four key challenges if we apply the wisdom they shared.
TASK 1: White men are supporting his opponent. He needed to woo some of them back.
The backstory: The president has a problem, specifically a white guy problem. He is trailing his opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, by nearly 30 points among white men without college degrees, and also trailing among college-educated white males by double digits.
The speech: Every time the president referenced the auto industry in his speech he wasn't talking to car lovers. He was speaking directly to the working class. Many of those blue-collar workers who rely on the auto industry for jobs are working-class white males. His repeated references to manufacturing jobs were a direct appeal to those workers.
TASK 2: Voters like him, but the president needed to convince more of them to trust him, specifically his competence on managing the economy.
The backstory: Polls show voters like him personally but do not like his handling of the economy. He needed to make the case that he has an economic plan that will work if he's given a second term to make it work.
The speech: His convention speech was loaded with references to the economy and jobs with lines like, "After a decade of decline this country created over a half a million manufacturing jobs in the last two and a half years." But while the speech was also loaded with references to continuing down the path of creating more jobs, it was not loaded with many specifics regarding how he will do so.
TASK 3: He needed to throw red meat to the base.
The backstory: According to experts, those most likely to watch political conventions tend to be those most likely to be interested, engaged and active in politics, and for a Democratic convention, that means a number of self-identified Democrats. So since the president was going to be preaching at least in part to the choir, he needed to make sure his sermon, so to speak, had something in it for them. Particularly since many reports have indicated an enthusiasm gap between Obama supporters from four years ago, and today, meaning it is more essential than ever to the Obama campaign to ensure that diehard Democrats are actually motivated to show up on Election Day.
The speech: His many references to saving the auto industry were not only red meat, but the equivalent of a great big old steak for unions, who, after a number of setbacks at the hands of conservatives in recent years, could prove to be even more motivated to play a key role in the presidential election of 2012. His references to his health care plan, immigrants, people of color and "Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry or control the health care choices women should make" were direct nods to communities of color, progressive activists, pro-choice women and the LGBT community, all of whom have been reliable sources of Democratic support and will need to be again in November in order for Obama to secure a second term.
TASK 4: He needed to reach independent voters.
The backstory: Last election President Obama split white independent voters with Sen. John McCain. The latest polls, however, show the president in trouble with independent voters, who are particularly disappointed in his handling of the economy and are more open to considering a switch this election.
The speech: The challenge, as experts noted, is that by speaking of policies that appeal to the base, you risk alienating independents. Obama's speech opened by hinting that the hope and change he emphasized four years ago — something that resonated with the very independent voters now disappointed in him — may have been unrealistically optimistic, an acknowledgment that may win him points for honesty and maturity with this demographic. He talked about working with Republicans on cutting spending — a nod to bipartisanship, something that appeals to independents. He also peppered his speech with references to not wanting "handouts for people who refuse to help themselves," an appeal to fiscal conservatives. Yet the speech was really not focused on the middle, but on the base.
Blogging the Beltway's average grade for the president's RNC speech: B+
How do you think he did?
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.