Denver – In a stadium packed to the brim with more than 80,000 Americans waving red, white, and blue flags, Barack Obama formally accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, becoming the first African-American candidate for that office from a major party.
“With profound gratitude and great humility, I accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States,” he said as the crowd roared, stamped their feet, and flashed their cameras throughout Denver’s Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium.
Senator Obama then made an emphatic appeal to the working and middle classes, blaming their economic struggles on eight years of the “failed policies of George W. Bush.” While he pledged not use the “same partisan playbook” to attack GOP rival John McCain, Obama made the strongest case yet against the Arizona senator, assailing him for holding onto the “old, discredited Republican philosophy” and “standing alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war.”
He also challenged Senator McCain on his own turf, saying he was more than ready to “have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next commander-in-chief.”
On point after point, from energy policy to gun control to abortion to gay marriage, Obama outlined his “post-partisan” vision, managing to interweave his argument for his own candidacy with attacks on McCain’s positions.
Into that mix, Obama prodded Americans themselves to step up to change the country’s direction. He called for “a renewed sense of responsibility from each of us to recover what [President] John Kennedy called our intellectual and moral strength.”
The speech mixed Obama’s usual eloquence with a delineation of his specific plans and policy proposals.
"I do think it was one of the best ever,” says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “He wove the positive case for himself and the negative case against McCain into a functioning whole – and the remarkable thing was he also did all the heavy lifting in making the case against McCain.”
Even some Republican analysts seemed surprised by the fierceness of the speech, particularly in the way it portrayed McCain.
The McCain campaign, in a statement, shot back that it was a “misleading speech” that was “fundamentally at odds” with Obama’s record.
"When the temple comes down, the fireworks end, and the words are over, the facts remain,” the campaign said. “Senator Obama still has no record of bipartisanship, still opposes offshore drilling, still voted to raise taxes on those making just $42,000 per year… Barack Obama is still not ready to be president."
Obama began his speech recalling his parents’ belief in the American promise that, “through hard work and sacrifice,” their son could “do whatever he set his mind to.”
That promise, “that has always set this country apart,” is now threatened by eight years of the “failed presidency” of President Bush, he said.
"Tonight, more Americans are out of work and more are working harder for less. More of you have lost your homes and more are watching your home values plummet. More of you have cars you can't afford to drive, credit-card bills you can't afford to pay, and tuition that is beyond your reach,” he said. "America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this."
He added that “now is no time for small plans.” And he pledged to “set a clear goal as president: in 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East." Obama berated McCain’s repeated calls to “drill more, drill now” as “a stop-gap measure, not a long-term solution. Not even close.”
That was just part of the sustained attack on the presumed Republican nominee, from his decision to support the invasion of Iraq to his overall support of the Bush administration’s policies.
“Senator McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush was right more than 90 percent of the time?” Obama told the crowd, to cheers.
He also questioned whether McCain really wanted to follow Mr. Bush’s example of “tough talk and bad strategy,” but said it was “his choice.” Obama then tried to lay to rest the stereotype that Democrats are not as tough as Republicans on national security.
“We are the party of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy,” he said. “So don't tell me that Democrats won't defend this country. Don't tell me that Democrats won't keep us safe. The Bush-McCain foreign policy has squandered the legacy that generations of Americans – Democrats and Republicans – have built, and we are to restore that legacy."
Thursday was the first time since 1960, when John Kennedy accepted the presidential nomination at Los Angeles’s Memorial Coliseum, that a major-party presidential acceptance speech has been delivered in a stadium. The move was viewed as potentially risky. In 1960, Kennedy’s campaign had a difficult time filling all of the seats in the Coliseum.
“They had to work very, very hard to fill that stadium,” says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar and adviser to the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford administrations. “Kennedy wasn’t yet that superstar that he became in the fall campaign. But now we remember it as a great speech; it where he introduced the ‘New Frontier.’ ”
While Obama had no trouble filling Mile High stadium with more than 80,000 people, Republicans have ridiculed the decision as yet another indication of Obama’s shallow celebrity status.
“When the issues aren’t with you, go for celebrity and fanfare – 70,000 people in a stadium cheering, entertainers enthusing,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told reporters at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast earlier in the week.
But that criticism may not yield the backlash the GOP is aiming for.
“It’s fascinating that the Republicans are spinning it into a liability. To me, that’s the most outrageous spin of the year – what politician wouldn’t be thrilled to have that kind of draw?” says Mr. Hess. “It’s fabulous if somebody thinks they can attract 75,000 cheering people – that strikes me as a plus.”
According to many of the young people in the crowd, a subset of voters that Obama and the Democrats are counting on to turn out in November in record numbers, the evening appears to have had the intended effect.
“It was really inspirational,” says Willie Neal, an 18-year-old delegate at large from Jackson Hole, Wyo., who found himself sitting in the front row. “The idea that politics has the power to do good, that it can really help people and make a better world, was displayed here tonight. Obama showed us that we can better individuals, we can work for a better future and bring out a common good and compassion in everyone.”