CHARLOTTE, N.C. — God is back in the Democratic platform and people rooting for President Barack Obama hope the dazzle is back in him.
With war ending, the health care system recast and the creaky economy overshadowing all, Obama takes the stage of the Democratic National Convention on Thursday to appeal for a second term before a huge prime-time audience. He’s got several tough acts to follow — his wife Michelle’s crowd-swooning speech of a few days ago, former President Bill Clinton’s rollicking turn on stage Wednesday night and his own soaring oratory of four years ago.
Clinton, the one-time “comeback kid,” offered a rousing defense of Obama’s economic stewardship in a speech setting up Obama’s moment to come. “He inherited a deeply damaged economy, put a floor under the crash, began the long hard road to recovery and laid the foundation for a more modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs,” said Clinton — the last president to see sustained growth, in the 1990s. “Conditions are improving and if you’ll renew the president’s contract, you will feel it.”
He also preached bipartisanship and a pullback from politics as “blood sport” — this near the end of back-to-back conventions that feasted on rhetorical red meat and even as he ripped the Republican agenda as a throwback to the past, a “double-down on trickle-down” economics that assumes tax cuts for the wealthy will help everyone down the ladder.
Obama watched Clinton’s speech from backstage, then strolled out and embraced him, bringing happy roars from the crowd in his first convention appearance and making for a spirited ending to a trying day for Democrats.
After passing their platform a day earlier in a smoothly scripted show of unity, Democrats reopened it to restore a reference to God that had been stripped out in earlier deliberations.
Republican rival Mitt Romney called quick attention to the omission, branding it as evidence that the Democrats are a “party that is increasingly out of touch with the mainstream.” White House aides said Obama himself ordered the party to get God back in. The platform also was altered to declare that Jerusalem “is and will remain the capital of Israel,” a view at odds with a carefully neutral U.S. policy but in tune with campaign sensibilities.
Citing a chance of thunderstorms, convention organizers scrapped plans for Obama to speak to an enormous crowd in a 74,000-seat outdoor stadium and shoehorned the event under the roof of the convention arena, holding up to 15,000. That meant no opportunity to reprise the massive show of support, excitement — and on-scene voter registration — from Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech before 84,000 in Denver. Republicans said Democrats made the switch because they feared the sight of empty seats.
For Obama, the evening speech provided one of his best opportunities not just to persuade undecided voters to swing his way in a tight election but to put fire in the belly of his supporters and get them to come out on Election Day. That wasn’t an issue in 2008, but the anemic recovery has raised questions about the motivation of Democrats as Obama seeks to become the first president since the Great Depression to win re-election with joblessness so high.
It was no accident the president devoted many stops on a pre-convention tour of battleground states to campus crowds of the sort that lifted him to the Democratic nomination and the presidency last time.
“Barack’s challenge here is to sort of wake up America and make them realize how serious this election is,” Democratic Rep. Sam Farr of California said in an interview at the convention. Judging from his town hall meetings in August, when only 15 or 20 people showed up instead of the usual hundreds, there is a “big apathy about politics right now,” regardless of party.
Farr added, “If we have an apathetic America, I’m terrified.”
Motivation was not an issue in the convention hall, at least not when Clinton spoke.
The hall rocked with cheers as Clinton strode onstage to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” his 1992 campaign theme song, and he held the crowd rapt as he drifted off his prepared remarks for about 50 minutes.
He accused Republicans of proposing “the same old policies that got us into trouble in the first place” and led to a near financial meltdown. Those, he said, include efforts to provide “tax cuts for higher-income Americans, more money for defense than the Pentagon wants and … deep cuts on programs that help the middle class and poor children.”
“As another president once said, ‘There they go again,'” Clinton said, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan, who often uttered “There you go again” as a rebuke to Democrats.
“In Tampa,” said Clinton, “the Republican argument against the president’s re-election was pretty simple: We left him a total mess, he hasn’t finished cleaning it up yet, so fire him and put us back in.”
Clinton’s speech marked the seventh consecutive convention in which he has spoken to party delegates, and the latest twist in a relationship with Obama that has veered from frosty to friendly. The two men clashed in 2008, when Obama outran Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former president’s wife, for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton, then a New York senator and now Obama’s secretary of state, was in East Timor as the party met but made a cameo appearance on the huge convention screens in a video that celebrated the 12 Democratic female senators now in office.
Party leaders did their best to draw as little attention as possible to the changes in the platform, making the switch even before the prayer that opened the second night of the convention.
They restored wording from the 2008 platform calling for a government that “gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential.”
The switch on Jerusalem puts it in line with what advisers said was the president’s personal view, if not the policy of his administration. “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel,” it says. “The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.”
Three times Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the convention chairman, called for a voice vote on the changes and each time the yes and no votes seemed to balance each other out. On the third attempt, Villaraigosa ruled the amendments were approved — triggering boos from many in the audience.