Democratic convention hoopla over, Obama now faces a reality check

In the cold light of a post-convention morning, President Obama got more discouraging news on US employment. Unlike 2008, he can't just speak aspirationally; he has a record to defend.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Barack Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012.

The conventions are over. Back to reality. Friday morning, just hours after President Obama delivered his big address at the Democratic National Convention, the new unemployment figure was released – 8.1 percent in August, down from 8.3 percent the month before.

The slight decline may seem a political boon to Mr. Obama, but it reflects discouraged workers dropping out of the labor force. The economy added only 96,000 jobs last month, below expectations.

In a tight presidential race against Republican Mitt Romney, public perceptions of the economy’s direction will be central to the outcome in November. But with Friday’s mixed news, the shape of the race was likely to remain unchanged.

The jobs report served as a reminder of the challenge Mr. Obama faces as he seeks a second term amid chronically high unemployment. If Obama succeeds, he will have defied political gravity: No president has won reelection with such high unemployment since Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

But that’s a big “if.” As Obama’s convention speech demonstrated, it’s not 2008 anymore. By definition, he could not be purely aspirational. He has a record to defend. And there were moments in his address when he seemed painfully mindful of that fact, as he asked for more time to finish the task of rebuilding the economy.

“I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy. I never have,” the president said in his speech to 20,000 party activists in the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C. “You didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades.”

Most strikingly, Obama barely referred to his signature legislative accomplishments – the record-high stimulus package he got through Congress within weeks of taking office, followed by his landmark health-care reform a year later. Both remain controversial, and perhaps fearing he might sound defensive, Obama only touched on the arguments. The night before, in what was widely seen as the most compelling speech of the Democratic convention, former President Clinton took on the heavy lift of defending and promoting both the recovery act and “Obamacare.”

Obama, in contrast, focused on what he called “a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.” That choice, he made clear, pits the Democratic view that government can be part of the solution against the Republican view that government needs to get out of the way.  

“We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative,” Obama said. But, he added, “we also believe in something called citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.”

Obama also repurposed his iconic themes of hope and change, reflecting them both back on the voters. “I’m hopeful because of you,” he said, segueing into heart-warming stories he has encountered during his time in office, such as the homeless girl who is performing award-winning scientific research.

And change? “You were the change,” he insisted, offering examples of how his election paved the way for policy changes that have affected real people – a sick child who now cannot lose her health insurance, a young undocumented immigrant who can now avoid deportation, a gay soldier who can now serve openly.

Still, Obama’s speech Thursday night did not match the moment four years ago when he addressed a packed football stadium in Denver to accept his first presidential nomination. But how could it have? He is no longer the young senator poised to become the first black president, perhaps naively promising a new post-partisan politics. He is the sitting president, a bit grayer, a bit more care-worn, facing serious questions about his ability to navigate a hyper-polarized Congress in a second term.

The threat of rain that moved Obama’s acceptance speech in Charlotte out of another football stadium probably saved him from more direct comparisons with Denver. And the fact that it indeed poured rain here late Thursday afternoon cooled speculation that perhaps he could not have filled Bank of America Stadium, a point his campaign hotly denied.

So how did the two conventions stack up?

Both came off largely as infomercials, designed to put on display the parties’ best talent and present a picture of party unity even where it doesn’t exist.

In Tampa, the Republicans failed to paper over the fact that the libertarian-leaning wing of the party, centered in the candidacy of Ron Paul, was unhappy that the Texas congressman’s delegates were never formally counted. In Charlotte, the Democratic left wing’s sense of betrayal by Obama’s capitulation on the still-open Guantanamo Bay prison camp and the bailout of Wall Street was on display on the streets around the convention and in the reports of sympathetic alternative media.

Both conventions also failed to pull off scripted perfection, to the relief of the media hordes hungry for actual news.

In Tampa, actor Clint Eastwood’s bizarre conversation with an “invisible Obama” in an empty chair – telecast live during prime time – overshadowed Mr. Romney’s acceptance speech. In Charlotte, the Democratic platform’s lack of reference to God or Israel as Jerusalem’s capital gave Republicans a talking point, and forced an awkward moment on the convention floor when the vote to fix the platform was rammed through, without the actual votes needed, it appeared.  

Romney got little to no bounce from his convention, and with the less-than-sterling jobs report Friday morning, it’s not clear that Obama will get one either. And so the sprint to Election Day is on. Next up: four debates in October, three presidential and one vice presidential. Those represent the next opportunity for voters to see the candidates unfiltered. And if there are going to be any game-changers in the race, those are the best place to look.

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