Michelle Obama talked him up, Bill Clinton talked Republicans down, and now it’s up to President Barack Obama to try to talk his way into a second term with a prime-time speech to the Democratic National Convention on Thursday.
He faces enormous hurdles. Oh, voters think he’s likable enough, to borrow a phrase. They like him personally quite a bit more than they do Mitt Romney, according to recent polls. But his job approval ratings haven’t been above the 50 percent mark seen as critical for incumbents facing re-election. And the sputtering economy, burdened with 8.3 percent unemployment, weighs down his hopes for a second term.
Gone are the Greek columns of the Denver convention of 2008, awkward props that drew mocking fire from Republicans from the minute they were glimpsed on television. And on Wednesday organizers announced they were moving the speech from Bank of America Stadium, which seats 74,000, to Time Warner Cable Arena, which seats 20,000, citing the risk of thunderstorms.
While disappointed Democrats worried this meant no balloon drop, Republicans insisted the shift showed the 2008 bubble has burst, charging that the president feared being unable to fill the stadium. Obama aides countered that the 65,000 ticket holders, 19,000 people on the waiting list, thousands of reporters and others attending the convention meant the arena would be packed. And some noted that many of the ticket holders earned their seats by volunteering for the Obama campaign’s vaunted and valuable get-out-the-vote effort — and that moving the speech to the smaller venue could alienate foot-soldiers who will be critical to victory in November.
In her speech to the convention on Tuesday, Michelle Obama pulled back the curtain on her early years with Obama, vouching for his character and the love he bears his wife and daughters, repeatedly insisting that he is “the same man” after three and a half years of political knife-fights in Washington.
Then came Clinton, who did his best to knock down Republican arguments and prop up Obama’s record in facing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. At times, he sounded like the smartest kid in the class explaining what the sometimes-distant professor just couldn’t convey.
“Listen to me now. 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 told the rapt audience of thousands.
By the time the former two-term president and the would-be two-term president embraced on stage, Clinton had defended Obama from Republican attacks and painted Romney as dangerous to America’s economic health.
(If anyone at the Republican National Committee or the Romney campaign directly assaulted Clinton, they kept it pretty quiet. Most offered some variation on “We know Bill Clinton, and you’re no Bill Clinton.” That’s what happens when you have a 69 percent approval rating).
So what, then, is left for Obama do? Aides kept the contents close, but Obama is expected to give a speech in keeping with his campaign motto, “Forward,” putting some flesh on what to date has been a fairly bare bones description of what he wants to do in a second term.
Job One: Sketch out a blueprint for rebuilding the economy.
“On Thursday night, I will offer what I believe is a better path forward — a path that will create good jobs and strengthen our middle class and grow our economy,” the president said at a campaign event in the battleground state of Virginia.
(The president is expected to let Joe Biden bring down the house with the vice president’s pithy summary of Obama’s reelection argument: “Osama bin Laden is dead, and GM is alive.”)
Job Two: Explain why the next four years will be different from his hyper-partisan first term.
Obama has been predicting that, if he wins reelection, it will “break the fever” of Republican obstruction and amount to “popping the blister” of his opponents’ partisanship. Aides cite reforming education or immigration and forging an ambitious deficit reduction package among the promising areas for cooperation with Republicans.
But a shiny new era of bipartisan cooperation seems unlikely, and not just because the president’s words suggest he views Republican ideology as an illness to be cured, hardly the rhetorical equivalent to an outstretched hand. Obama came into office in 2008 as a history-making figure with Democratic majorities in Congress. Why would things be any better this time around?
Job Three: Give disillusioned Obama backers reason to dream again — or at least trust again.
In his speech to the 2004 Republican convention, then-president George W. Bush told voters that “in the last four years, you and I have come to know each other. Even when we don’t agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand.”
Obama, rumored to have studied Bush’s strategy, has at times had a similar message. At a campaign even in Chicago last, month, he put it this way:
I used to say back in 2008 — and I didn’t have to tell you guys because a lot of you all have known me for a long time — I’m not a perfect man, and I said I wouldn’t be a perfect President. But I promised you that I’d always tell you what I thought, I’d always tell you where I stood, and I would wake up every single day thinking about you and fighting as hard as I knew how to make your lives a little bit better.
And I still believe in you. And if you still believe in me, and are willing to fight with me, and knock on doors with me, and make phone calls with me — if you are as determined as I am to keep bringing about hope and keep bringing about change — if you’re ready to finish what we started in 2008, we will not lose this election.