Obama Seeks Second Term on Harder Path to Better Place

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Four years after the nation made history by electing him the first African-American president, Barack Obama asked for a second term with a pledge to keep rebuilding a battered economy in a way that “may be harder but it leads to a better place.”

Obama said the election between him and Republican Party nominee Mitt Romney would have profound consequences on jobs -- which he mentioned 15 times -- and the economy, taxes and deficits, energy and education, war and peace.

While asking for a commitment to patience rather than a re-investment in hope and change, Obama, 51, said that the race presented an urgent choice that will last for generations, underscoring the differences between the parties that have led to a polarized electorate frustrated by warring factions in Washington.

“I’m asking you to choose that future,” Obama said last night in a 39-minute speech accepting the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, two months to the day before the Nov. 6 election. “Yes, our road is longer, but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We pull each other up.”

His challenge now is to make history again. If re-elected, Obama would become the first president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be elected with an unemployment rate above 8 percent -- and estimates for jobs data out today suggest the trend will continue.

Old Ideas

He dismissed his opponent -- only mentioning him once by name -- as the leader of a party of old ideas that favored the rich over the middle class.

Republicans at their convention, Obama said, “were more than happy to talk about everything they think is wrong with America, but they didn’t have much to stay about how to make it right. They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan.”

Responding to Obama’s speech, Matt Rhoades, Romney’s campaign manager, issued a statement. “Americans will hold President Obama accountable for his record -- they know they’re not better off and that it’s time to change direction,” he said. “Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will restore America’s promise and deliver a better future for our country.”

Obama said his opponents offered nothing fresh in their remedies. “Have surplus, try a tax cut,” the president said. “Deficit too high, have another. Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations and call me in the morning.”

Long Lens

He asked Americans to look at his economic plan with a long lens, particularly on energy, citing the doubling of renewable energy use and the raising of fuel standards. “Now you have a choice -- between a strategy that reverses this progress, or one that builds on it,” Obama said.

Obama also said Romney’s proposals would “gut education.”

The president offered a choice on leadership in the world, highlighting his promise to end the war in Iraq. “A new tower rises above the New York skyline, al Qaeda is on a path to defeat and Osama bin Laden is dead.”

Though foreign affairs aren’t high among voters’ concerns, the president focused on distinctions. “My opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy, 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.”

Obama paid tribute to America’s service members and those wounded in combat, while Romney didn’t mention Afghanistan or U.S. troops during his convention address.

Military Spirit

“I don’t know what party these men and women belong to, I don’t know if they’ll vote for me,” Obama said. “But I know that their spirit defines us.”

On economic issues, Obama targeted middle-class concerns about his approach to reducing the deficit and changing the tax code, asking voters to remember the success under President Bill Clinton and suggesting his path was the same. And he said: “I will never turn Medicare into a voucher.”

Hours before Obama spoke, U.S. benchmark stock indexes rallied to their highest levels in more than four years, highlighting an economic recovery that has propelled corporate profits above pre-recession records.

Even so, persistent high unemployment and stagnant wages have dispirited the American public, with 62 percent saying the country is on the wrong track in an Aug. 22-26 CBS News poll, a level of discontent that could doom an incumbent president’s re-election chances.

Bain Capital

After spending the last few months criticizing Romney’s character, business experience and family fortune, Obama struck a more positive tone, mostly avoiding personal attacks, saving the most biting critiques for foreign policy. Obama didn’t mention Bain Capital LLC, the private equity firm Romney co-founded.

Instead, Vice President Joe Biden took on Romney’s experience as head of Bain, saying that his opposition to the auto bailout was an emblem of his outlook on business as a profit-above-all enterprise.

“The Bain way may bring your firm the highest profit,” Biden said. “But it’s not the way to lead your country from its highest office.”

Without mentioning his predecessor by name, the president drew comparisons to the policies of President George W. Bush, warning that Romney would recreate those conditions that sparked the gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Obama also reminded Americans how those years compared with the tenure of Clinton, whose nominating speech Sept. 5 reminded voters of the prosperity of the 1990s as he rebutted Republican criticism of the current president.

Lost Excitement

Even with a reserve of personal popularity, Obama has one irreversible impediment: He can only be new once. Much of the excitement surrounding his candidacy, and his presidency, has faded as the economy has remained sluggish and the capital, whose tone he promised to change, remains fractious.

Four years ago, people were voting for a concept, an empty vessel that they could fill with their own notions of hope and change. That gauzy notion soon collided with an economic crisis and a Republican Party that was in no mood to work with him. Obama aides said they set expectations unrealistically high, given the gravity of the ongoing financial crisis.

Even so, Obama failed to persuade Republicans to join him, and his popularity and job approval ratings have been in decline. And whatever Obama gained in terms of America’s role in the world, voters were focused on a flagging domestic economy.

Personal Appeal

Obama’s appeal remains largely personal as his job approval ratings have been stuck below 50 percent for weeks, according to the Gallup poll. At the same time, Romney’s unfavorable ratings are higher than any challenger who has gone on to win the White House.

The president leaves Charlotte with a convention that even some Republicans such as consultant Alex Castellanos conceded had been a success.

“It’s a message that will resonate with average working people,” said David Midkiff, an insurance broker from Chesapeake, Virginia, who heard the speech on the convention floor. “He made it clear that it’s important that we do whatever we can to help the middle class.”

Whatever boosts the convention delivers, it could be fleeting if today’s jobs numbers are sour. And for that reason, his campaign has been downplaying any such expectations. Convention bounces -- if Obama gets one -- can also dissipate quickly. In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis left his convention in Atlanta with a 17-point lead only to lose to Republican George H.W. Bush.

Republicans have countered that Obama had four years to fix a mess they acknowledge he inherited, and they say that Romney’s success in business would translate to a presidency that could create jobs that would lead to a prosperity not seen since Clinton.

The campaign now turns into a series of daily battles to win a news cycle and peel off a sliver of the vote in eight or so key states that are likely to turn the election. “I’m gonna go home and work hard,” said Priscilla Chavez, a delegate from New Mexico.

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