Audience members hold Obama signs at the Democratic National Convention… (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune )
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Democratic argument for President Obama's reelection boils down to three sentences, each delivered on a separate night of the party's convention here.
On Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama subtly depicted Republican nominee Mitt Romney as a candidate whom Americans should not trust. As children, she said, she and the president had been raised to believe "that the truth matters, that you don't take shortcuts, or play by your own set of rules, and success doesn't count unless you earn it fair and square."
On Wednesday, former President Clinton addressed the disappointment many Americans feel with Obama's tenure so far. "No president — no president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one — could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years," Clinton said.
The third sentence, however, involved a topic that only the president himself could present to voters — a larger vision for a second term.
Democrats, Obama said, "believe in something called citizenship, citizenship — a word at the very heart of our founding, a word 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."
Casting his reelection in terms of that larger theme allowed Obama to draw a contrast with the Republicans, whom he described as believing "that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way; that since government can't do everything, it should do almost nothing."
The theme also served as a potential way to motivate the voters — many of them young people — who supported him in 2008 but have wavered about whether to do so again this year. For them, Obama could offer a broader idealism.
"We, the people, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, 'What's in it for me?' a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense," the president said.
Obama's task differed from Romney's a week earlier. The challenger's job primarily involved biography, introducing himself to the many voters who still had only a sketchy understanding of him and his background. Obama, by contrast, has a clearly defined image among voters, a majority of whom continue to tell pollsters that they like and admire him. The problem for his campaign is that many also express disappointment with his performance.
With unemployment still above 8% and economic anxiety gripping many voters, this president does not have the luxury of framing the election the way President Reagan did in his nomination acceptance speech in 1984.
"Today, of all the major industrial nations of the world, America has the strongest economic growth; one of the lowest inflation rates; the fastest rate of job creation … and the largest increase in real, after-tax personal income since World War II," Reagan proclaimed.
Reagan welcomed the chance to define his campaign as a referendum on the previous four years. "We bring to the American citizens in this election year a record of accomplishment and the promise of continuation," he said.
This year it is the challenger who wants the election to turn on an assessment of past performance. Romney encapsulated that view in a brief comment to a small group of reporters in Concord, N.H., on Thursday afternoon.
"I think this is the time not for him to start restating new promises, but to report on the promises he made," Romney said. "I think he wants a promises reset. We want a report on the promises he made."
Obama, of course, does have to account for his record. Not surprisingly, he avoided the less pleasant parts, including the high unemployment rate and persistently large budget deficits, but the convention spent considerable time focusing on what Democrats see as the high points.
"Four years ago, I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did," Obama said. "I promised to refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11. We have. We've blunted the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan, and in 2014, our longest war will be over. A new tower rises above the New York skyline, Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat, and Osama bin Laden is dead."
Previous speakers offered a litany on domestic policy. Many extolled what Democrats see as the benefits of Obama's healthcare law. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm brought delegates to their feet a couple of hours before Obama spoke when she recited the number of jobs saved in battleground states by his bailout of the automobile industry. Others hailed his action this summer to protect young illegal immigrants from deportation.
Many of those domestic policy issues connect primarily with the Democratic base. That remains important because Obama still lags behind his 2008 level of support among some core Democratic groups. Unmarried women form one such group and were a key audience for the repeated Democratic charges that Republicans would try to restrict women's access to contraception and abortion.
Victory for Obama almost certainly will require reaching beyond those voters, and he turned to motivating them in the speech's peroration.
"If you turn away now — if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn't possible … well, change will not happen," he said. "If you reject the notion that this nation's promise is reserved for the few, your voice must be heard in this election."