The Little People Mentioned in Obama’s Big Speech at the DNC

In his primetime speech, President Obama gave a shout out to some average Americans who give him hope. Eliza Shapiro asks, who are they? (Hint: They’re not that average.)

Alex Wong / Getty Images

During Barack Obama’s highly anticipated speech at the Democratic National Convention, the President mentioned a handful of ordinary Americans who give him “hope”. The controversial word that defined his 2008 campaign was applied to citizens Obama never mentioned by name. So who are they?

“The young woman I met at a science fair who won national recognition for her biology research while living with her family at a homeless shelter, she gives me hope.”

That’s Samantha Garvey, a curly-haired teenager from Long Island who just started college this fall.

“The family business in Warroad, Minnesota that didn’t lay off a single one of their 4,000 employees during this recession…they give me hope.”

That’s Marvin Windows and Doors, which was profiled in the New York Times last year for employing 2,000 people in a town of only 1,700. 

And during his long riff on how it was American citizens themselves who have effected change, Obama said, “You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can’t limit her coverage. You did that.”

The girl is Zoe Lihn, who will most likely need three open-heart surgeries to sustain her life.

These were not average Americans Obama plucked off the street. Zoe’s mother, Stacey Lihn, delivered a widely acclaimed speech on the first night of the DNC, praising the Affordable Care Act for making it possible for her daughter to have the surgeries she needs without hitting her lifetime cap. The entire Lihn family appeared in an Obama ad, shimmying down a slide in a playground, under a blue banner reading, “Fact: President Obama has signed 21 tax cuts to support middle-class families.”

Garvey has been interviewed by Brian Williams and Ellen DeGeneres, who, with the help of AT&T, gave the teenager a $50,000 college scholarship. She graduated from high school this past spring, and was the youngest recipient of the Hispanic Hero Award. This summer, she studied marine biology at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Maine before heading to Bowdoin College.

John Kirchner, a spokesman for Marvin Doors and Windows, says the attention the company has received from the President and the media has ensured that “everyone in Minnesota knew” which company Obama was referring to in his speech Thursday night. Marvin is “certainly holding steady,” Kirchner said. “This economy will turn around, and when it does we’ll have our talent and our team intact. We’re set for when we come out of this.”

In his speech, Obama said, “I don’t know what party these men and women belong to. I don’t know if they’ll vote for me.”

But the odds appear pretty high that he’ll at least have the Lihns’ vote. As she was boarding her flight from Charlotte back to Phoenix on Friday morning, Lihn told the Daily Beast that she plans to “help out as much as I can,” with Obama’s re-election campaign in her home state of Arizona. Lihn called her three days at the DNC “surreal”—from her speech to sitting in the First Lady’s box on Wednesday night to the shout-out her family received in the President’s prime-time speech.

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“We were sitting in the arena, listening and trying to keep the kids quiet,” she said, “when Obama mentioned us and I looked at Zoe and I said, ‘Zoe, he’s talking about you!’ She started laughing and clapping, and waving to him on the monitor.”

Editor's Note: This story was changed after questions were raised about whether the veteran mentioned in Obama's speech was accurately identified.