A more reflective Barack Obama addressed the Democratic National Convention on Thursday night than the one who burst onto the national scene with his soaring speech in 2004.
Obama said he was a younger man then, a Senate candidate from Illinois who spoke about hope.
“Eight years later, that hope has been tested,” Obama acknowledged, “by the cost of war; by one of the worst economic crises in history; and by political gridlock that’s left us wondering whether it’s still possible to tackle the challenges of our time.”
He is, he said, “more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’ ”
Although at times his rhetoric soared, it came only in flashes so different from 2008. At times, he was even restrained as he looked back at his first term as president.
“America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now,” he said. “Yes, our path is harder — but it leads to a better place. Yes our road is longer — but we travel it together.”
Four years ago, Obamawas the hope. Thursday night, he said something very different, “I’m hopeful because of you
Struggling to ward off a fierce challenge from Mitt Romney, Obama sought to outline the choice before the nation in stark terms. America will either be a country that focuses on education for all and a healthier environment — or it won’t. It will be a nation that chooses experienced leadership in foreign policy, or it won’t.
“On every issue, the choice you face won’t be just between two candidates or two parties,” Obama said. “It will be a choice between two different paths for America. A choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.”
He and his vice president, Joe Biden, continued a convention-long push to portray the Democrats as the party of military strength.
“So long as I’m Commander-in-Chief, we will sustain the strongest military the world has ever known,” he said. “My opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy, but from all that we’ve seen and heard, they want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly.”
In a dig at Romney, he added: “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”
The address should match his rival’s in popular appeal. And Democrats were confident that Obama’s speech exceeded Romney’s.
He recited his achievements, such as making the country less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in the last two decades. But he barely kissed the passage of his signature initiative, the new federal health care law that remains so broadly divisive.
His chief focus was on the future, and he outlined — in broad strokes — what would follow in term two if re-elected.
One goal was the creation of 1 million new manufacturing jobs by the end of 2016. Another was cutting $4 trillion from the deficit in the next four years.
However, exactly how he’d achieve both of those he never explained.
Yet this was a speech that Obama needed badly to slow Romney’s recent rise in the polls and give independents another reason to back his re-election.
It came on the heels of two well-received speeches Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the first from Michelle Obama, whose mission was to reconnect voters with the president. Next came former President Bill Clinton, whose task was to address those who are disappointed in Obama’s first term.
Obama also got two unexpected boosts in the hours leading up to his speech. The nation learned that private companies added 201,000 jobs last month, up from 173,000 in July, and a better performance than economists had expected. That news spurred some predictions that the nation’s jobless rate would remain unchanged at 8.3 percent when it’s announced today.
An increase in unemployment would have undercut any momentum coming out of Charlotte.
Then a strong mid-afternoon downpour dampened any questions about why Democrats moved the president’s acceptance speech from an outdoor football stadium to the Time-Warner Cable Arena indoors.
Republicans had repeatedly suggested that the Democrats were struggling to fill the stadium’s 70,000 seats and were looking for an excuse to change venues.
The move was fortuitous in another sense. The president would have been hard-pressed to match the stadium acceptance speech he gave four years ago on a crystalline night in Denver at the height of the 2008 Obama swoon. The move indoors put an end to easy comparisons.
Still, his challenge Thursday night was considerable. Romney has been creeping up on him in the polls, and the Republican has come off as presidential and more personable than he had earlier appeared.
A sometimes combative Obama countered by offering a series of stinging retorts.
“If you can’t afford to start a business or go to college, take my opponent’s advice and borrow money from your parents,” he said.
Nonetheless, the Obama campaign’s director of opinion research said it’s unlikely that many undecided voters watched the convention. A more pivotal event may be the first presidential debate Oct. 3.
The speech’s highlight?
One was Obama’s ringing defense of the role of government, a direct rebuttal of the rhetoric coming out of Tampa last week.
“We don’t think government can solve all our problems,” Obama said. “But we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems — any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.”
Did he lay out a specific plan for jump-starting the economy?
Not really. Like Romney, he was short on specifics. Neither candidate wants to outline, in detail, the tough budget cuts each acknowledges must be made in the next four years. Instead, Obama focused on goals.
Did the president offer a bold new idea that excites independent and undecided voters?
Again, nothing specific. Like Romney, he rehashed ideas he has been discussing on the campaign trail for weeks. The race remains too close for bold new ideas.
Did he toss out a memorable line that will be recalled even a week from now?
Not a line, but this:
“Now, our friends at the Republican convention were more than happy to talk about everything they think is wrong with America, but they didn’t have much to say about how they’d make it right. They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan. And that’s because all they have to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last thirty years:
“Have a surplus? Try a tax cut.”
“Deficit too high? Try another.”
“Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.”