President Obama and lead speechwriter Jon Favreau at the White House in… (Pete Souza, White House )
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Four years ago, when Barack Obama gave his last speech to a Democratic National Convention, 85,000 cheering supporters under a broad Denver sky helped him ride a wave of emotion all the way to the White House.
Now, as he prepares to accept his party's nomination for a second term, aides and advisors say he faces a far more difficult task.
"There was less riding on that speech than now, just because there's a closer election," said David Axelrod, a longtime advisor and message guru who joined Obama on a swing through battleground states this week. "We've come through challenging times and people are looking to the future and trying to decide which path is the best path."
Obama will seek to answer that crucial question here Thursday night by pointing to administration accomplishments, from the auto industry rescue to ending the war in Iraq, as well as plans on other issues, his aides said. He won't unveil major new policy proposals but will add new pieces to some already in place.
He will remind voters that America's economy was nose-diving when he was elected in 2008, and that it has come back a long way since then. He will lay out a choice between the path he says Republicans want to chart for the country, and where he intends to lead.
The goal: to win over those who aren't yet convinced. And to inspire and energize those he has already convinced.
Those are tall orders when the unemployment rate is still above 8%, foreclosure signs sprout in yard after yard, and polls show many Americans are discouraged and disillusioned. Republicans echo that refrain in tone and substance, in advertising and in conversation.
"What do they have to show for the last four years?" asked Andrea Saul, spokeswoman for Republican nominee Mitt Romney. "Americans' best feeling about President Obama was on the day they voted for him."
With that as his challenge, Obama took two senior advisors and two speechwriters on the road with him in recent days, working with them on Thursday night's speech when he wasn't holding rallies with voters in Ohio, Virginia, Iowa and Colorado.
Obama typically begins working on a major address by meeting with one or more of his speechwriters, describing the message he wants to convey, walking through the organization as he envisions it, and speaking aloud words and phrases he wants to include.
The writers know Obama's cadence, language and thinking. Lead speechwriter Jon Favreau and foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes have been with Obama since his 2008 campaign and have helped him craft nearly every major speech since then.
The convention speech is different from most. Every political advisor in the president's sphere has offered opinions about what should be spoken and at what volume.
Axelrod and David Plouffe, Obama's former campaign manager and now a White House political advisor, help the president weigh those points. Axelrod, the most experienced political operative, plays the role of confidant. Plouffe, the most knowledgeable about strategy and research, is known for unsentimentally separating the extraneous from the necessary.
As a little-known state senator from Illinois, Obama first drew a national spotlight at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. Calling for an end to bitter partisanship, he declared there is no red America and no blue America but only a United States of America — "the greatest speech he ever gave," as Axelrod recalls it.
Talking about what he has achieved in the White House and what he will do if reelected, especially if Congress remains in political gridlock, doesn't make for the same transcendent speech.
But the language doesn't need to be flat and heavy, said Larry Grisolano, a media advisor on the president's team.
"The truth is we've been through hard times as a country," he said. "But there is a better place and we're heading there. That is inspirational. That is uplifting."