CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Four years after riding a wave of optimism into the White House, Barack Obama offered a sobering message about the future as he asked Americans for another term to help complete the country's recovery from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Accepting the 2012 Democratic nomination Thursday night, Obama offered an updated version of the message of hope and change that brought him to office.
He said that he'd been humbled by the burdens of office and told millions watching on TV that he feels the sorrows of ordinary Americans who have lost loved ones in war or their homes or jobs to the recession.
"While I'm very proud of what we've achieved together, I'm far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, 'I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go,'" the president said near the end of his 38-minute speech.
Reaching out to the relatively small number of voters who are still undecided, he framed the election as a choice between competing visions of the future, and between differing ideas about whether government is a friend or an enemy.
"We don't think government can solve all our problems," he said, "but we don't think that government is the source of all our problems, any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we're told to blame for our troubles."
He contended that shared responsibility, rather than benefits "reserved for the few," would help solve problems that have been building for decades and "will take more than a few years for us to solve."
Mitt Romney, he said, was merely writing the same prescription that Republicans have offered since Ronald Reagan was president.
"Have a surplus? Try a tax cut. Deficit too high? Try another," Obama said, as the convention crowd greeted his mockery with laughter and cheers. "Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!"
He also pushed back against the Romney campaign argument that his administration is hostile to domestic energy production, arguing that the U.S. was less dependent on imported oil than at any time in nearly 20 years and setting a goal of even steeper declines by 2020.
And he highlighted an issue that had gone virtually unmentioned at either party's convention, declaring that "climate change is not a hoax. More drought and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children's future. And in this election you can do something about it."
But in a presidential contest that may well be decided by which campaign has more success turning out its supporters, the president devoted much of his time to addressing the disappointment of those unhappy with a lack of progress addressing the nation's problems.
He gave a quick review of his achievements, including a sweeping healthcare overhaul, protection against deportation for some young illegal immigrants, allowing gays to serve openly in the military and ending the war in Iraq.
"You are the change," he declared, to rapturous applause. "You did that!"
Still, Obama took pains to reprise his argument from 2008 that recovery would not be a quick or painless process.
"You didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear," he said. "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."
At the same time, in a message tailored for the ears of his younger supporters, he offered an upbeat argument for staying involved in electoral politics.
"Our problems can be solved. Our challenges can be met. The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place," he said. "That is why I am running for a second term as president of the United States." At that, the convention floor exploded in a sea of blue "Forward" signs being waved by delegates chanting "Four more years!"
The third and final night of the Democratic gathering featured a bevy of celebrity appearances and speeches by both names on the party's ticket.
That was a departure from the tradition of providing the vice presidential running mate with his own night onstage. That role was taken by former President Clinton on Wednesday night.
Inside the hall, Vice President Joe Biden drew cheers with his response to the "Are you better off?" challenge that Republicans are posing to voters.
"Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive," he said.
Playing the running mate's traditional attacking role, the 69-year-old Biden said Romney is not "a bad guy" but that, as head of the private equity firm he co-founded, Bain Capital, he became more concerned with "balance sheets" and "write-offs" than with people.
"Folks, the Bain way may bring your firm the highest profits. But it's not the way to lead our country from its highest office," Biden said, criticizing Romney's opposition to the auto industry bailout and his hesitation about spending billions of dollars to catch Bin Laden.
Obama picked up Biden's foreign policy theme in his speech, saying he was offering the country "leadership that has been tested and proven," while Romney and his running mate, Paul D. Ryan, "want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly."
His speech ended in a cloud of confetti and the roars of some 20,000 in the hall, with Obama's wife, Michelle, who had introduced him, returning to the stage.
Joining them were their daughters Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11, and other Obama and Biden relatives.
The tableau ended a night whose most poignant note may have been the appearance of former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, wounded in a January 2011 shooting.
Giffords walked haltingly to center stage to lead the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance as delegates wept.
Defense and foreign policy were among the night's central themes part of an effort to draw a contrast with the Republican convention, which largely skirted those issues, a traditional GOP strength.
The Democrats have largely neutralized the Republican edge in that area this year, and on Wednesday night they attempted to turn national security to their advantage.
"Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago," said Sen. John F. Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, bringing the delegates to their feet.
Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, praised the Obama administration's treatment of returning troops and denounced Romney's failure to mention the war in Afghanistan, where about 70,000 U.S. servicemen and women are deployed, in his acceptance speech last week.
He also accused his fellow Massachusetts politician of shifting positions on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and on the Libyan civil war -- and poked fun at his own famous shift on the Iraq war, which he had initially supported.
"Talk about being for it before you were against it! Mr. Romney, here's a little advice: Before you debate Barack Obama on foreign policy, you better finish the debate with yourself," prompting a roar and a standing ovation from the crowd.
The threat of thunderstorms had forced a late change in convention staging this week. Plans to have Obama reprise his 2008 acceptance speech with another outdoor stadium extravaganza were scrapped.
Instead of taking a midfield stage at Bank of America Stadium with a crowd that his campaign hoped would top 65,000, he spoke inside the Time Warner Cable Arena, which seated fewer than one-third that many.
Network television audiences for the first two nights of the Democratic convention were larger, by roughly 15%, than for the GOP's corresponding nights a week ago in Tampa, Fla., according to the Nielsen Co.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times