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DNC: First Lady Obama Seizes The Moment

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Firing up the faithful, reassuring the skeptics

By Chris Levister

Characterized by what California delegates Linnie Frank Bailey and James Dudley call a sea of diversity, thousands of Democrats gathered at the 2012 Democratic National Convention four years after then Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) became the first African-American in U.S. history to accept the party's nomination.

With the nation’s economy in tatters and the near rapturous adulation waning, the Democratic faithful gathered again, this time in support of national unity and a president who carries the power and the burden of incumbency. “Our mission is to convince Americans to stick with the president they know rather than gamble on someone new,” said Bailey, a challenging task given the backdrop of 8.3 percent unemployment and tepid economic growth.

“The main question we are being asked here is, ‘Are we better off than we were four years ago’,” said Dudley “the answer is absolutely yes.” Four years ago, America was bogged down in two costly and deadly wars, the economy was losing 800,000 jobs a month, the stock market had crashed, Wall Street had to be rescued with a $700 billion bailout, the auto industry was on the verge of collapse, and color coded terror alerts reminded us of the lingering threat of Osama Bin Laden.

Under President Obama, we've ended the war in Iraq, created 4.5 million new jobs, doubled the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and generated record profits for the auto industry. And that's to say nothing of health care reform, financial reform, repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and hundreds of other major accomplishments from this administration. “The way to get the president re-elected is by spreading the gospel of the truth,” declared the convention’s oldest delegate Elzena Johnson of Terry, Mississippi born in 1914.

“This is what America looks like, inclusive, open, transparent,” Dudley said of the 5,559 delegates and 407 alternates circulating the convention floor. Half of all the delegates are women, 27 percent are black, with a record number of 800 Latino delegates and 644 youth delegates. There were a lot of testimonials like Johnson’s, Dudley’s and Bailey’s, but it was First Lady Michelle Obama's show Tuesday night at the Convention, and she used it masterfully carrying a rapt crowd along with a narrative of family, hard work, and truth telling.

“President Barack Obama is just like you. He knows the American Dream because he's lived it,” the first lady told an enthusiastic and adoring crowd in an address intended to reassure voters that her husband shares their values hard work, perseverance and optimism.“He believes that when you've worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.” Mrs. Obama never mentioned the president's Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who grew up in a world of privilege and wealth.

But the point was clear as she weaved a tapestry of their early years together, when money was tight and times were tough, when they were "so in love, and so in debt." She reminisced about the man who now occupies the Oval Office pulling his favorite coffee table out of the trash and wearing dress shoes that were a size too small. And she told stories about a president who still takes time to eat dinner with his daughters nearly every night, answering their questions about the news and strategizing about middle school friendships.

With a mix of personal anecdotes and policy talk, Mrs. Obama's speech was by far her most political yet. “Today, after so many struggles, triumphs and moments that have tested my husband in ways I never could have imagined, I have seen firsthand that being president doesn't change who you are it reveals who you are,” she said.

Mrs. Obama followed an electrifying speech by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the first Latino to keynote a Democratic National Convention. His national debut put the Harvard educated Texan on the national map, recalling the way that Barack Obama's keynote did in 2004, when he was still a state legislator.

With a mixture of soft laughter and gentle scorn, Castro described Romney, one of the wealthiest men ever nominated for president, as “a good guy. He just has no idea how good he's had it.” “Their theory's been tested. It failed. Our economy failed under Republican policies. The middle class paid the price,” he said. “Mitt Romney just doesn't get it. But Barack Obama gets it.” Tuesday, Democrats ratified a party platform that echoes Obama's call for higher taxes on the wealthy and reflects his shift on gay marriage by supporting it explicitly. In a nod to dissenters on gay marriage, the platform expresses support for “the freedom of churches and religious entities to decide how to administer marriage as a religious sacrament without government interference.”

Convention speakers include, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, John Perez, Speaker of the California Assembly, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Representatives Judy Chu and Karen Bass.

On Wednesday night, former President Bill Clinton will deliver what is widely seen as the most important speech of the 2012 Democratic National Convention outside Mr. Obama's own, when Mr. Clinton will place Mr. Obama's name in nomination.

“He reminds the nation, and particularly independent and swing voters, that things were pretty prosperous in the 1990s because he rejected a lot of the Republican policies that are being advanced now,” said Mike McCurry, who was Mr. Clinton's press secretary for four years. “He instantly evokes the memories of when things were a little better for Americans, and can credential Obama as a guy who will make the tough choices.” President Obama's crucial Thursday night acceptance speech was moved indoors due to dire weather forecasts.

Convention watchers say the switch deprives Democrats of what they had considered a major opportunity to register thousands of new North Carolina voters in a crucial swing state.

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