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Opinion

After the confetti, Obama faces a reality check

Voters still need hope and change. But it is much harder for Obama to justify four more years, given historic numbers of Americans living in poverty, record high food-stamp use, and sluggish job growth. Last night, the president only partly succeeded in pointing the way ahead.

By Amy E. Black / September 7, 2012

President Obama is joined by first lady Michelle Obama and their children, Sasha and Malia, after Mr. Obama gave his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 6, 2012.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File

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Wheaton, Ill.

Four years ago, Democratic nominee Barack Obama addressed a record-breaking crowd under the stars in Denver. Last night, at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., he returned to the familiar backdrop of a convention hall. The smaller venue – forced by bad-weather predictions – is emblematic of the much different political context facing the president today.

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In 2008, it was easy to drum up enthusiasm for hope and change. Mr. Obama and his attractive family symbolized youth, optimism, and opportunity. Voters were weary from two wars and the economy was spiraling downward. People needed hope and craved change.

They still do. But it is much harder for Obama to justify four more years, given that the greatest number of Americans live in poverty since record-taking began more than 50 years ago, that food stamp rolls have reached an all-time high, and jobs and the economy are growing at only a sluggish pace.

Last night, the president faced the hard task of defending his record, recapturing voter enthusiasm, and laying out a plan for the future. He only partly succeeded, deftly reviving his hope-and-change theme by anchoring it in the American people themselves. “I am hopeful because of you,” Obama said to the crowd and to viewers. He asked voters to join him in charting a better path for America. “The election four years ago wasn’t about me,” he exhorted, “It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change.”

Obama trumpeted his accomplishments – a health-care bill, a revived auto industry, and the end of the war in Iraq. But he still needs to build a clearer, more coherent defense of his record.

Bill Clinton laid out an excellent playbook on Wednesday night, and Obama would do well to follow it. Repeating the refrain “we’re all in this together,” the former president adroitly responded to Republican attacks, recasting a presidential term ridden with partisan conflict and political stalemate into a valiant rebuilding effort that is laying the foundation for future prosperity.

In Charlotte, Obama and party leaders needed to generate enthusiasm, which translates to donations and gets voters to the polls. In 2008, Obama raised a record $750 million, outspending GOP nominee John McCain more than 2 to 1. This year he will not have such a big advantage. Obama has outraised Mitt Romney so far, but the Romney campaign has been winning the fundraising war all summer and is closing the gap.

The convention and speeches by Michelle Obama, former President Clinton, and Obama himself, generated excitement in the crowd and will likely provide a welcome boost to refill campaign coffers and rally the troops for a time. But the president and his party will have to do more to keep the hope alive through November.

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