CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In an energized opening session that spoke to a broad array of party interests, Michelle Obama delivered a personal and emotional address to the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, describing her family’s struggles and hopes.
She described not only of trying to maintain a normal family life in the White House, but of President Obama’s commitment to his agenda, and about how he agonizes as he pores over letters from Americans in need.
“He reminds me that we are playing a long game here, and that change is hard, and change is slow, and it never happens all at once,” Michelle Obama said. “But eventually we get there; we always do.”
Although she never mentioned Mitt Romney by name, a racially diverse parade of speakers took the Republican presidential nominee head-on — challenging him on taxes, health care, immigration, women’s rights, and abortion.
“Mitt Romney just doesn’t get it,” said Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, in the keynote address.
Exuberant delegates cheered the speakers — including Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick — who criticized Romney, as the Democrats seized the opportunity to deliver their first, prime-time counterpunch to last week’s Republican assault on them in Tampa.
Michelle Obama’s prime-time speech at Time Warner Cable Arena served as an emotional counter to a similar address delivered last week in which Ann Romney sought to flesh out her husband’s personality and passions.
Michelle Obama spoke of tough financial times she and Barack faced as a young couple, of parents who struggled and inspired them both to reach high, and of what she said has been her husband’s moral and political consistency.
“In the end, for Barack, these issues aren’t political – they’re personal,” she said. “Because Barack knows what it means when a family struggles.”
Michelle Obama recalled the encouragement she received as a child, and how she and the president had been raised by hard, determined caregivers.
“Like so many American families, our families weren’t asking for much. They didn’t begrudge anyone else’s success or care that others had much more than they did. In fact, they admired it,” she said to loud applause.
“We learned about dignity and decency – that how hard you work matters more than how much you make, that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself.”
Patrick pointedly took issue with Romney, saying he left Massachusetts as the 47th state in job creation; with roads and bridges crumbling; and with business confidence down.
“Mitt Romney talks a lot about all the things he’s fixed,” Patrick said. “I can tell you that Massachusetts wasn’t one of them. He’s a fine fellow and a great salesman, but as governor he was more interested in having the job than doing it.”
Patrick offered a full-throated defense of Obama’s record, and implored Democrats to toughen up and make a more compelling case for what they believe in.
”It’s time for Democrats to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe,” he said, drawing the cheering crowd to its feet. “I will not stand by and let him be bullied out of office,” Patrick said of Republican attacks on the president.
Castro, in his keynote address, echoed Patrick’s spirited support for Obama and assailed Romney for his vision for smaller, limited government.
“Texas may be the one place where people actually still have bootstraps, and we expect folks to pull themselves up by them. But we also recognize there are some things we can’t do alone,” Castro said. “We have to come together and invest in opportunity today for prosperity tomorrow.”
In a familiar attack by Democrats, Castro derided Romney as out of touch with ordinary Americans.
“A few months ago he visited a university in Ohio and gave the students there a little entrepreneurial advice,” Castro said.
“ ‘Start a business,’ he said. But how? ‘Borrow money if you have to from your parents,’ he told them. Gee, why didn’t I think of that?”
Romney’s campaign seized on the negative attacks, pointing out that they were far from the unifying politics that President Obama had pledged to seek.
“It was just eight years ago Barack Obama’s keynote address promised ‘a politics of hope’ and a rejection of those ‘who are preparing to divide us,’” said Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman. “But that Barack Obama is nowhere to be found now that Americans aren’t better off, with stagnant unemployment, lower incomes, and a poverty rate on track to hit its highest rate since the 1960s.”
Democratic speaker after speaker, however, hammered the Republican ticket of Romney and US Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as willing to eviscerate Medicare and the social safety net to expand tax breaks for the wealthy.
“We all understand that freedom isn’t free. What Romney and Ryan don’t understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it,” Castro said.
Romney’s wealth and his business background came under a harsh light, with speakers chastising him for his work at Bain Capital, where he invested in companies and reworked them, in some cases leading to layoffs and cutbacks.
“Mitt Romney never saw the point of building something when he could profit by tearing it down,” said former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. “If Mitt was Santa Claus, he would fire the reindeer and outsource the elves.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, in a speech that warned of the growing power of what he called Tea Party “extremists and ideologues,” chastised Romney for not releasing more of his tax returns.
“Never in modern presidential history has a candidate tried to hide himself from the people he wants to serve,” Reid said. “We can only imagine what new secrets would be revealed if he showed the American people a dozen years of tax returns like his father did.”
Reid scoffed at Romney’s call for Americans to trust that he has paid his fair share of taxes. “Trust comes from transparency; Mitt Romney comes up short on both.”
Obama planned to watch his wife speak from the White House after a day spent campaigning in Virginia.
‘‘I’m going to be at home, and I’m going to be watching it with our girls. And I’m going to try not to let them see their daddy cry, because when Michelle starts talking, I start getting all misty,” Obama said at Norfolk State University.
As the convention got under way late in the afternoon, delegates rang cowbells and chanted “Four more years!” They also chanted, “Fired up!” to which another group responded, “Ready to go!”
At 5 p.m., the lights dimmed and Debbie Wasserman Shultz, a congresswoman from Florida and the chairwoman of the Democratic Party, banged a gavel after shouting, “The 46th quadrennial national convention of the Democratic Party will now come to order!”
Steve Kerrigan, a native of Lancaster, Mass., who has been running the convention, illustrated the amount of time he has spent in North Carolina by welcoming “ya’ll” to Charlotte.
“President Obama once remarked that my mentor and friend, Ted Kennedy, was the soul of our party,” Kerrigan said. “The senator can’t add his clarion call to the voices you’ll here this week, but … the work goes on. Let the work of this convention go on.”
Kennedy’s legacy, particularly his passion for health-care reform, was noted in a video tribute introduced by Joseph P. Kennedy III, the great-nephew of the late senator, who is running to succeed retiring Congressman Barney Frank.
“Make no mistake, he is here with us this evening,” Kennedy said of the senator.
The video tribute included excerpts from a 1994 debate between Senator Kennedy and Romney, in which Kennedy derided Romney’s stance on abortion as “multiple choice.”
“Abortion should be safe and legal in this country,” Romney said in the debate, a reversal from his current position.
The crowd roared, with many of the delegates rising to their feet and chanting “Teddy.”
As the video showed Kennedy pushing for universal health care, Leon Brathwaite of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., smiled and leaned into the delegate next to him.
“From the grave,” he said.
Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, said he hoped the Obama campaign would do more to expose what Dukakis called a failed economic record during Romney’s four-year term in Massachusetts.
“I just want to make sure people understand the Romney story in Massachusetts,” he said, while munching on a chicken quesadilla as his wife, Kitty, made her way around the corner to listen to the convention speeches. “I’m not a fan of Mitt’s, needless to say.”