CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In the second presidential nomination acceptance speech in as many weeks, the American people heard President Obama concede the recovery from the Great Recession has been slow but urge them not to abandon him – or his governing vision – as he seeks four more years to complete the task.
Obama repeatedly invoked the words “choose” and “choice” as the Democrat argued that Election Day will not just decide the contest between him and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but the very nature of the country each seeks to lead.
“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 told the crowd assembled for the closing night of the Democratic National Convention. “You know what? That’s not who we are. That’s not what this country’s about.”
Rather, the president said, “We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks, ‘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.”
Obama countered Republican allegations of a Democratic Party intent on creating a European-style socialist state in adding: “As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.”
As Romney had done precisely 168 hours earlier at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Obama hit an array of standard touchstones as he spoke before an audience that – along with the three presidential debates in October – will be the largest he faces before voters go to the polls on Nov. 6.
While not running through a laundry list of priorities as is common in a State of the Union address, the president answered Republican calls for specifics by outlining five goals for a second term.
He also reached out to a key demographic he needs to sustain him – women – with talk not just about preserving abortion rights, but his commitment to education and sly use of female pronouns rather than their more common masculine counterparts.
“You’re the reason a young immigrant who grew up here and went to school here and pledged allegiance to our flag will no longer be deported from the only country she’s ever called home,” he said at one point, mixing his outreach to women with that to Hispanics – another key electoral demographic.
And Obama lay prostrate not just by conceding American concerns about the pace of the economic recovery, but his own personal failings.
“I’m no longer just a candidate; I’m the president” he said to cheers inside the Time Warner Cable Arena that belied the confession to follow. “And that means I know what it means to send young Americans into battle, for I have held in my arms the mothers and fathers of those who didn’t return. I’ve shared the pain of families who’ve lost their homes, and the frustration of workers who’ve lost their jobs.”
Obama added: “If the critics are right that I’ve made all my decisions based on polls, then I must not be very good at reading them.”
The president’s speech retained his campaign’s focus on the middle class, declaring he ran for president in 2008 because he saw “that basic bargain” of the American Dream “slipping away.”
He added: “Now, our friends down in Tampa 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,” he said to laughter.
Obama argued one choice confronting Americans is his belief in government investment and Romney’s call for tax cuts that the former Massachusetts governor believes will trickle prosperity down through the economy.
“We have been there, we’ve tried that, and we are not going back,” the president said. “We’re moving forward, America.”
Obama then rejuvenated the words of the late Paul Tsongas, a 1992 Democratic presidential candidate, in outlining what he said was a path that “may be harder, but leads to a better place.”
The former Massachusetts senator once proclaimed, “I offer a different path: harder, but more hopeful; longer, but more compelling; steeper, but more worthy.”
Answering the Romney campaign’s focus on job creation, Obama pledged to create 500,000 new manufacturing jobs during his second term.
On the topic of energy, he said he would open new areas to exploration and cut oil imports in half by 2020, while creating 600,000 jobs just in the natural gas sector.
In education, he asked for help in recruiting 100,000 math and science teachers during the next decade, while halving the growth rate of tuition costs in the same period.
Speaking of the economy, federal budget, and taxes, Obama call form tax reform as well as a return to Clinton-era tax rates for those earning over $250,000 per year.
“No party has a monopoly on wisdom,” the president declared. “No democracy works without compromise. I want to get this done and we can get it done. But when Governor 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, what did Bill Clinton call it? ‘You do the arithmetic.’ You do the math. I refuse to go along with that. And as long as I’m president, I never will.”
Obama rallied the liberal/progressive base by refusing to agree to any privatization of either Medicare or Social Security.
Yet Obama saved his most searing rhetoric for a recap of his national security achievements and an indictment of what he perceives as the dated philosophy embraced by Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan.
“We’ve blunted the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, and in 2014, our longest war will be over,” he said. “A new tower rises above the New York skyline. Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat. And Osama bin Laden is dead.”
Mocking Romney and his recent visit to Europe and the Middle East, the president quipped, “My opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy.” As the audience laughed, he added: “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 the sharpest personal attack of his speech, the president said: “You don’t call Russia our No. 1 enemy – not Al Qaeda, Russia – unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War time warp. You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”
In closing his speech, though, Obama aimed to elevate himself from candidate to leader, citing the stories of Americans he has met and the inspiration he has drawn from their life’s stories.
One was a woman who won a conducted nationally recognized science research while living in a homeless shelter. Another was a sailor who lost a leg in a grenade attack but now runs and bike races on a prosthesis to inspire the newly injured.
“I don’t know what party these men and women belong to,” Obama said in a nonpartisan appeal. “I don’t know if they’ll vote for me. But I know that their spirit defines us. They remind me, in the words of Scripture, that ours is a ‘future filled with hope.’”
He then paid heed to the political admonition made famous by former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr.
“If you share that faith with me,” the president said, “I ask you tonight for your vote.”Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.