President Obama made the case Thursday night for his reelection by framing the vote in two months as a choice between a country built on community and a culture of everyone for himself.
“We’re not entitled to success. We have to earn it,” Obama said in a speech formally accepting his party’s nomination and wrapping up the Democratic National Convention.
“But we also believe in something called citizenship — a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.”
Although he mentioned his opponent, Massachusetts Gov.Mitt Romney, by name only once, it was clear to whom he referred throughout his 38-minute address.
He suggested Romney would pursue a return to policies of past Republican administrations — tax cuts for the well-to-do, less regulation — and said they helped produce the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and hollowed out the American middle class
“We have tried that and we’re not going back,” Obama said, uttering a line that was the night’s collective mantra, from speaker after speaker. “We’re going forward.”
Spilling well past the hour of prime-time coverage allotted by the major TV networks, Obama offered a long list of achievements including passage of his sweeping healthcare overhaul, an end to the war in Iraq, the routing of Al Qaeda and a lessening of the U.S. dependency on foreign oil.
He did not give much detail on the goals a second Obama administration would pursue, though he vowed to fight global warming, remain a staunch ally of Israel, defend Medicare from efforts to turn it into a voucher program and oppose any attempts to privatize Social Security.
More specifics were offered in a document issued by the White House hours before the president spoke.
The list included creation of 1 million new manufacturing jobs by the end of 2016; doubling exports in the next two years; cutting oil imports in half by 2020; slowing by half the growth of college tuition in the next decade and reducing the federal deficit by more than $4 trillion over 10 years.
He referred broadly to those goals, as well as the economic hardship of the past 3½ years, though he never spoke explicitly of the high unemployment that has persisted throughout his presidency.
“I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now,” Obama said in asking for another four years in the White House.
“Yes, our path is harder but it leads to a better place,” the president said in closing. “Yes, our road is longer, but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up.”
There was little of the high-flown rhetoric that marked Obama’s introduction to the country at the Democratic convention in 2004. At times, the tone was biting, even sarcastic, as when he referred to Romney’s lack of foreign policy experience.
“You don’t call Russia our No. 1 enemy — not Al Qaeda, Russia — unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War time warp,” Obama said in one of many passages that suggested Romney was of a generation whose time had passed.
“You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally,” the president said, referring to Romney’s bumpy summer overseas trip.
He answered Republican criticism that the country was no better off under his leadership by suggesting that the problems he inherited in January 2009 were not susceptible to quick fixes.
“The truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve the challenges that have been built up over decades,” Obama said.
Appearing before the president, Vice President Joe Biden served up a long and laudatory introduction, describing what he called a behind-the-scenes glimpse of working alongside the president. “Folks, I’ve watched him,” Biden said. “He has never wavered. He never, never backs down. He always steps up.”
He assumed the traditional supporting role of taking after the opposition, saying Republicans evaded substance at last week’s GOP convention to hide their true intentions from voters.
He delivered what has become his signature line, touting two of what he considers the administration’s most important achievements, helping rescue the failing U.S. auto industry and eliminating the leader of Al Qaeda.
“Osama bin Laden is dead,” Biden said, “and General Motors is alive.”
The refrain brought the crowd to its feet, as delegates waved blue and red “fired up” and “ready for Joe” signs.
In effect pleading, as Obama did, for more time, Biden invoked the message of the team’s 2008 campaign. “The journey of hope is not yet finished, but we are on our way,” Biden said. “And the cause of change is not fully accomplished, but we are on our way.“
After the two finished, red, white and blue confetti rained down from the ceiling as Obama was joined on stage by his wife and two daughters. Giant screens in the arena showed graphics of fireworks exploding, substitutes for the real fireworks that had been set to go off at nearby Bank of America Stadium.
The Obamas kept waving as they were joined by Biden, his wife, Jill, and other family members. As Obama was congratulated by the DNC committee and walked offstage, the crowd, which had been cheering, and, in some cases, crying, began to chant, “Four more years.”
The traditional tableau capped a program with several emotional peaks, including a surprise appearance by former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot and nearly killed while visiting with constituents in January 2011. Arriving to chants of “Gabby!” “Gabby!” she walked onstage with a noticeable limp, then forcefully led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Earlier, delegates gently swayed as folk crooner James Taylor performed “Carolina In My Mind” and laughed when he joked about the president’s struggle for support among older, White voters. I don’t get it,” Taylor said. “I mean, I’m an old White guy and I love Barack Obama.”
Most of the program, however, was devoted to another round of bashing GOP presidential nominee Romney and his fellow Republicans.
One after another, speakers accused the former Massachusetts governor and the GOP of trying to roll back progress: on civil rights, women’s rights, healthcare, immigration reform and financial regulations that followed the near-meltdown of Wall Street.
“We are going to protect these achievements, and we’re going to move this country in just one direction: forward,” said Rep. David Price, one of a series of home-state lawmakers who opened the convention with welcoming remarks.
Broadening the attacks to foreign policy, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts delivered a scalding speech that described Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan, as “the most inexperienced foreign policy twosome” to seek the White House in decades.
He praised Obama for ending U.S. involvement in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan, helping topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, working with Russia to reduce the world stockpile of nuclear weapons and banning the use of torture against America’s enemies.
As the Democrat’s 2004 nominee Kerry was relentlessly attacked as a flip-flopper. He returned the favor Thursday night, as one of several speakers who accused Romney of shifting positions and lacking a backbone.
“Mr. Romney, here’s a little advice,” he said. “Before you debate Barack Obama on foreign policy, you better finish the debate with yourself.”
Unlike Romney, who once said it was not worth “moving heaven and Earth” and spending billions to capture one person, Kerry said Obama gave the order “to finally rid this earth of Osama bin Laden.”
Turning a favorite Republican taunt against them, Kerry said, “Ask Osama bin Laden if he’s better off now than he was four years ago.” The crowd rose to its feet, cheering.
Somewhat lost since 2008 is the historic significance of Obama’s election as the first Black president in the nation’s history. Obama has never dwelled on race, which remains a politically touchy subject.
So it was a poignant moment when Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, one of the heroes of the civil rights movement, spoke of traveling through Charlotte as a Freedom Rider in 1961, the year Obama was born, and being severely beaten as he and others sought to integrate the segregated South.
He spoke of legislation today in several states that makes it harder to vote, and accused Republicans of seeking to suppress turnout for the benefit of Romney and other Republicans.
“That’s not right. That’s not fair. And that is not just,” said Lewis, wagging a finger as his voice rose. “We have come too far together to ever turn back. … We must stand up, speak up and speak out. We must march to the polls like never, ever before.”
Hours before he took the stage, Obama apologized to disappointed supporters shut out of the speech by a decision to move the event from Charlotte’s open-air football stadium.
Organizers cited the threat of thunderstorms as the reason, leaving tens of thousands disappointed, including some volunteers who had worked many hours to earn a ticket to Thursday night’s program. (The campaign hoped to draw 70,000 people to Bank of America stadium; the Time Warner arena seats no more than 20,000.)
To make it up, the president held an afternoon conference call in which he apologized for the cancellation. He thanked his supporters for their efforts and urged them to recommit his campaign for the final, 60-day stretch.
“We can’t let a little thunder and lightning get us down,” Obama said. “We have to roll with it.” (As it turned out, the weather would not have been a problem.)
Far from the clamorous convention hall, Romney told a small group of reporters in New Hampshire he had not watched a minute of the Democratic gathering and had no intention of tuning in to watch Obama’s remarks.
The former Massachusetts governor has spent the past few days in New England in preparation for the next big campaign milepost: a series of three presidential debates, set to begin Oct. 3.