Staking his political future on a new sort of hope, but admitting that change could take a few more years, Barack Obama set out his case for re-election at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte last night, laying out a series of “goals” with which he hopes to define a second term in the White House.
In a speech that dialled down the soaring rhetoric that defined his first Presidential campaign, and seeking to appeal to reason, rather than dewy idealism, he tilted an election season that has so far been relentlessly negative towards a more detailed discussion of “two fundamentally different visions” for America’s future.
“You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear,” he told almost 20,000 energised supporters who had packed into a city-centre sports arena. “You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is that it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades.”
The second Obama term will focus on achieving nine distinct goals: in manufacturing, energy, education, national security, and defecit reduction. They aim to set the country on course towards a new era of prosperity, after what he called a second “Great Recession” from which “we are all still fighting to recover.”
Obama’s remarks sought to compare his prescription for revival with that of the Republicans in Tampa last week, who “were more than happy to talk about everything they think is wrong with America, but didn’t have much to say about how they’d make it right.”
“Over and over, we have been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way; that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing,” Obama said. “You know what? That’s not who we are. That’s not what this country’s about.”
Obama pushed plenty of partisan buttons, describing Republican economic policy as “tax cuts for millionaires,” and dubbed the party’s mooted reform of healthcare for seniors as “vouchercare.” He also lambasted Mitt Romney’s foreign policy, credentials, saying: “you might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.
In a still-narrow presidential race, the hour-long speech sought to reclaim a portion of the middle ground. It focused on checking boxes that might appeal to anxious voters, rather than merely soaring, and stressed that no party has “a monopoly on wisdom.” But for all the relative policy detail, it wouldn’t be an Obama appearance without a bit of lofty, star-spangled idealism.
To that end, he spoke of a “dogged faith in the future which has pushed this nation forward even when odds are greater, road is long.” He reminded the audience of “the words of Scripture, that our’s is a ‘future filled with hope’.” At one point, he called schools “ladders of opportunity to this nation of dreamers, and talked of being “endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.”
The crowd lapped it up, as we always knew they would. But though Obama’s oratory was perfect, and his metaphors occasionally spectacular, the event was a far cry from 2008, when he walked out before faux-Greek columns at Denver’s mile-high stadium, to music by U2, turned and applauded the crowd of 84,000.
Then, amid fireworks and frenzied cheers, he reminded the audience of his rags-to-riches life story and made the case for “change that we need.” Now he’s selling something different. And he faces a Republican party energised by the emergence of the tea party and a still-faltering economy.
Mitt Romney, for his part, had indicated earlier he would not be watching Mr Obama speak. Nonetheless he later issued some comment via Twitter, claiming that sections of the speech where the President criticised deregulation were: "demonstrating just how out of touch he is with small-business owners.”
Earlier Joe Biden, the vice president made a robust defence of his first four years. He contrasted Obama’s bailout of General Motors with Romney’s call to “let the company fail” and attacked the Republican candidate’s career in venture capital.
“The Bain way may bring your company the highest profits. But it’s not the way to lead your company from the highest office,” he declared, arguing that the measure of Obama’s success is that “Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."
After the befuddlement of Clint Eastwood’s bizarre skit involving an empty chair in Tampa last week, team Obama had also rolled out a slate of younger a-listers. Hollywood stars Scarlett Johansson and Kerry Washington appeared on the rostrum, urging young people to get out and vote. The Foo Fighters performed a muisical interlude.
Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria, one of Obama’s campaign chairs, delivered a surprisingly combative speech chronicling her rags-to-riches life journey and attacking Mitt Romney’s trickle-down economic platform. “The Eva Longoria who worked at Wendy’s flipping burgers, she needed a tax break. But the Eva Longoria who works on movie sets... She does not.”
The test of the night's worth, however, will come not in the convention hall, but in the living rooms of America, where still-floating voters have just 60 days left to make up their minds. Today sees the release of jobs figures predicted to be, at best, moderate. Whether Obama's prescription for renewal can convince the electorate, in the face of economic uncertainty, is now the question on which the next Presidency will hinge.