With his presidency on the line, President Barack Obama on Thursday asked for more time from voters, acknowledging that despite his lofty goals of hope and change, the economy is going to take years to recover.
As he sought to regain trust from a disaffected electorate weary of months of high unemployment, Obama warned of tough times as the nation emerges from what he said are “challenges that have built up over decades.” But he offered a rousing defense of his stewardship and insisted his vision – not that of his Republican rival, Mitt Romney – will lead to true prosperity for the middle class.
“Know this, America: Our problems can be solved. Our challenges can be met,” Obama said. “The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place. And I’m asking you to choose that future.”
In a speech that at times seemed far from the soaring rhetoric of his first nomination speech as he detailed what he’s accomplished and still needs to do, Obama used one of the biggest platforms he’ll have before Election Day to convince the electorate he’s on the right path.
“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. We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that Providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on Earth,” he said.
After attacking Romney for failing to offer specific proposals at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., last week, Obama outlined a series of goals including creating 1 million new manufacturing jobs, recruiting 100,000 math and science teachers and reducing the deficit by more than $4 trillion.
“They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan,” Obama said. “And that’s because all they have to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last 30 years.”
Republicans immediately called his goals scaled down or recycled promises from 2008.
With polls showing the race against Romney tight and voters focused on the economy, Obama needed both to energize his dispirited base and persuade undecided voters that he’s set the economy on the right track and his prescription will restore middle class prosperity
“If you turn away now – if you buy into the cynicsm that the change we fought for isn’t possible, well change will not happen,” he told a cheering crowd at the Time Warner Cable Arena.
Obama cast the election as a choice between “two different paths for America,” charging that Republicans are only offering “the same prescription they’ve offered for the last 30 years: tax cuts.
He blamed Republicans for preventing him from accomplishing more, but he did not fully explain how he would work with House Republicans in the future. He took some swipes at Romney, in particular zinging Romney on foreign trip, but he only once mentioned him by name, when he spoke about his disdain for providing tax breaks to the wealthy.
“No party has a monopoly on wisdom. No democracy works without compromise,” Obama said. “But when Gov. Romney and his allies in Congress tell us we can somehow lower our deficit by spending trillions more on new tax breaks for the wealthy – well, you do the math. I refuse to go along with that. And as long as I’m president, I never will.”
He delivered a forceful defense of his record, but at the same time he asked for patience, invoking Franklin D. Roosevelt’s efforts to bring the U.S. out of the Great Depression – “the only crisis worse than this one.”
"I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy. I never have,” Obama said. “You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades.”
And he made the case for an active government, saying recovery “will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued.”
Republicans have lambasted Democrats for looking to government to solve problems, and Obama included a caution to his own side, noting that it "should remember that not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington."
He sought to use his platform – a major prime-time speech attracting possibly 40 million viewers across the country – to woo the last undecided voters at a time when campaign officials said Americans were just starting to pay attention after returning from their summer vacations and Labor Day holidays. As he arrived on stage, the crowd broke into chants of “Four more years” and blue “Forward’’ signs.
Hour after hour Thursday, delegates heard praise of Obama’s accomplishments – his actions to stabilize the economy, passage of health care legislation that Democrats have sought for decades, the rescue of the auto industry and ending the war in Iraq.
Obama’s message, though, could be eclipsed Friday by the release of an August jobs report that’s not expected to be a vast improvement over the sluggish growth that has dogged his administration and kept the unemployment rate stuck firmly at over 8 percent for 42 months of Obama’s term.
Obama sought to excite his base hours before his address, apologizing via conference call to thousands of disappointed supporters who held tickets for a scrapped outdoor stadium address.
“I need you to remember that nothing is more powerful than the work that you guys do,” he told supporters. “Nothing is more powerful than voices calling for change.”
Polls suggest voters are uncertain about Obama’s ability to return the U.S. economy to full health, and he promised a speech “laying out what are the stakes in this election and what my vision for the future is.”
Obama’s speech capped a three-day Democratic convention that was not without mishaps. A flap over a decision to strip from the party platform – and then reinsert – the word “God” and language that asserts Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, threatened to overshadow much of the message and embroiled senior party officials in a no-win political battle.
Delegates began streaming into the arena hours before Obama’s arrival on the final day of the convention, which included a speech from his vice president, Joe Biden, who lately has hit some rocky patches on the campaign trail. Biden’s son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, officially nominated his father for vice president. Biden, sitting in the stands with his wife, smiled and waved.
In his acceptance speech, Biden relished the role of attack dog that the vice president often plays, but he also sought to give an inside look at the steep challenges Obama faced when he came to the White House.
“Folks, I’ve watched him,” Biden told a hushed arena. “He never wavers. He steps up. He asks the same thing over and over again: How is this going to work for ordinary families? Will it help them? And because of the decisions he’s made, and the strength the American people have demonstrated every day, America has turned the corner.”
Sen. John Kerry, a former colleague of Obama’s in the Senate and the party’s 2004 presidential candidate, chided Romney for not understanding the importance of killing Osama bin Laden, calling the Republican ticket “the most inexperienced foreign policy twosome to run for president and vice president in decades.”
“It took President Obama, against the advice of many, to give that order to finally rid this Earth of Osama bin Laden,” he said. “Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago.”
Democrats also showcased former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican turned independent, pitching him as an example of Obama looking to work across the aisle. Crist said Obama’s stimulus act “saved our Florida.”
In a surprise, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the head two years ago in Arizona, was escorted slowly out on stage, limping as she walked to the center to lead the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance. “Gabby!,” the crowd gasped and shouted, leaping to its feet. As she made her way across the stage a final time, she turned one last time toward the cheering delegates, blowing them kisses.
Even before Obama took to the stage, there were questions about whether the campaign could muster as much enthusiasm as 2008. His speech was originally scheduled for the 70,000-seat Bank of America Stadium, where the NFL Carolina Panthers play, but convention officials moved to the smaller, indoor venue on Wednesday, citing a forecast for thunder and lightning.
Republicans mocked the “downgrade” to the 20,000-seat Time Warner Cable Arena, accusing Democrats of being unable to fill the larger stadium as they had in 2008, when more than 80,000 people crammed into Denver’s pro football stadium to hear Obama give his convention acceptance speech.
The downsizing of venues led to some cancellations, including the band Earth, Wind and Fire. But delegates and supporters heard from the Foo Fighters, Marc Anthony, Mary J. Blige and James Taylor, who delighted the crowd when he quipped between songs, "I don’t get it. I mean, I’m an old white guy and I love Barack Obama.” Outside, the arena supporters rallied, chanting Obama’s 2008 anthem: “Fired up! Ready to go!"
Democrats continued their love affair with Hollywood. Speakers include actresses Eva Longoria, Scarlett Johansson and Kerry Washington.
Obama spent the day at his hotel, visiting with first lady Michelle Obama and working with aides to tweak his speech. He leaves with Biden and their spouses on Friday, flying to New Hampshire and Iowa for campaign events before a two-day bus tour of the largest swing state, Florida, over the weekend.
The race could come down to as-yet-undecided voters in a few swing states, and Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, said Obama will be speaking to supporters as well as voters who are “legitimately trying to decide and are tuning in.”
Delegates at the convention, who greeted Obama with thunderous applause Wednesday when he appeared onstage with former president Bill Clinton, said they were hoping Obama speaks to those who haven’t yet made up their minds.
“If people clear their minds when the president speaks for a half an hour, they will be convinced,” said Tyler Clark, a worker at a non-profit health care organization and a convention delegate from Arkansas. “He can work a room.”
Denay Burris, 44, the mayor of Fort Coffee, Okla., noted that the speech – carried on the networks and covered by an estimated 15,000 journalists – will get wide distribution, even in small towns like hers, with a population of 550.
"This speech is going to be noticed in areas that don’t have access to information like rural areas,” Burris said. “They’ll be able to see it tonight. They’ll be able to think it."
Campaign strategists said Obama wanted to use his speech to present his vision for a second term, rather than criticize Republicans. Polls show that though Americans personally like the president, more think Romney has a better plan to fix the economy.
Obama has had a likability advantage over Romney, and strategists are happy to have other speakers go on the attack – including Clinton, who accused Republicans of harboring “hate” for Democrats.
“We’re not interested in coming tonight to body slam Gov. Romney or tear him down, we’re interested in coming to talk about how we can lift the whole country up,” Axelrod said, adding that Obama’s speech would be “very positive. It’s one that will give people more than they got last week, a sense of where we need to go.”
White House senior adviser David Plouffe, too, argued that Republicans had failed to provide much of a path forward at their Tampa, Fla., convention, but that Obama would.
“What you saw in Tampa was an uninspiring recitation of the same recipe that hasn’t worked for the country economically,” Plouffe told reporters after a breakfast with Florida’s delegation. “We’re laying out a very articulate case for what we’ve done as president and the choice in this election between Romney and Obama. The president is going to lay out very clearly the pathway forward for the country.”
The campaign gave a preview Thursday morning, releasing a Web video to highlight what it says are promises that Obama kept. The five-minute video opens with clips of his 2008 acceptance speech, arguing that he’s delivered on the promises he made when he was elected. Among the claims: that he signed 18 tax cuts, created 4.5 million private sector jobs, made college more affordable, ended the war in Iraq and signed legislation that requires equal pay for women.
Republicans got little lift in the polls from the Tampa convention, and Obama strategists tempered expectations for their event, predicting a tight race into November. National polls have shown the race deadlocked for months, though Obama has led in nearly every swing state.
“There’s never going to be a huge gap between us,” Axelrod said. “I don’t think the structure of the electorate and the nature of our times will allow that.”
“Hopefully, we’ll get some advantage, but in any case we’ll get a chance to make our case,” he said.
Miami Herald staff reporter Marc Caputo contributed.