Michelle Obama pays tribute to her husband in convention speech
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Michelle Obama delivered an affectionate tribute to her husband Tuesday night as a man of courage and unshakable conviction, putting a warm gloss on an opening convention program filled with harsh attacks on Republican Mitt Romney.
“I didn’t think it was possible, but today I love my husband more than I did four years ago. Even more than I did 23 years ago, when we first met,” the first lady said in a prime-time speech carried live by the major TV networks. “I love that he’s never forgotten how he started. I love that we can trust Barack to do what he says he’s going to do even when it’s hard – especially when it’s hard.”
Reprising many of the themes and anecdotes she used in her speech to the Democratic convention four years ago, Obama delivered an implicit contrast to Romney’s wealth and comfortable upbringing by describing the hardship that she and her husband faced growing up.
“Like so many families, our families weren’t asking for much,” Obama said, adding — as if to rebut Romney and others who accuse the president of waging “class warfare” — “they didn’t begrudge anyone else’s success or care that others had more than they did. In fact, they admired it.”
In a seemingly veiled swipe at Romney, whom the Obama campaign has attacked as a ruthless profiteer, the first lady said, “We learned about honesty and integrity. That the truth matters. That you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules, and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square.”
The president “believes that when you’ve worked hard and done well and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you,” she said moments later, drawing a huge roar from the crowd. “You reach back and give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
Thus framed, she defended the controversial healthcare plan passed by the president and the expansion of other federal programs, including increased student aid. “Barack knows the American dream because he’s lived it,” Obama said, “and he wants everyone to have that same opportunity.”
The warm, gauzy tone was a notable contrast with much that came before.
One after another, speakers assailed Romney, the GOP presidential nominee, as elitist and out of touch.
Some of the harshest rhetoric came from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. He accused congressional Republicans of trying to sabotage Obama’s presidency, attacked the tea party wing of the GOP as “extremists and ideologues” and went after Romney for refusing to release more than two years of personal tax returns.
“We can only imagine what new secrets would be revealed if he showed the American people a dozen years of tax returns, like his father did,” Reid said, referring to former Michigan Gov. George Romney, who sought the White House in 1968. “Truth comes from transparency, and Mitt Romney comes up short on both.”
In a bit of barbed stagecraft, Romney appeared inside the convention hall — on tape — during a video tribute to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. A more moderate Romney unsuccessfully ran against Kennedy in 1994. The partisan crowd roared when Romney, during file debate footage, stated his support for legalized abortion — something he now opposes.
The speeches highlighted a program that put on full display the patchwork quilt that is the Democratic Party base, with a program full of women, Latino and African American speakers.
The keynote address was delivered by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who presented his family’s history as his own version of the American dream: a rise, in just two generations, from impoverishment to elected office.
“America didn’t become the land of opportunity by accident,” he said, implicitly making the president’s case for government as a helping hand. He citing the schools and universities and roads and bridges built through the investment of earlier generations, including his immigrant grandmother.
“Like many of you, I watched last week’s Republican convention,” Castro said, “and they told a few stories of individual success. We all celebrate individual success. But the question is how do we multiply that success? The answer is President Barack Obama.”
Castro then turned to Romney, who was formally installed as his party’s nominee last week in Florida, an important swing state.
“Republicans tell us that if the most prosperous among us do even better, that somehow the rest of us will, too,” Castro said. “Folks, we’ve heard that before. First they called it ‘trickle-down.’ Then they called it ‘supply side.’ Now it’s ‘Romney/Ryan,’ or is it ‘Ryan/Romney?’ ”— a reference to Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee and architect of the House GOP’s budget plan. “Either way, their theory’s been tested; it failed.”
The politics of the programming is straightforward: Obama and the Democrats hope to drive up enthusiasm among the constituencies he needs to offset weakened support among white voters, especially blue-collar men.
Polls suggest an enthusiasm gap. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey last month found just 49% of Latinos expressed high interest in the upcoming election, down about 20 percentage points from roughly this time in 2008. Closing that gap as well as reversing a lag in enthusiasm among younger voters will be one of the big goals for Democrats at their three-day convention.
“If, by the end of this week, you don’t think we’ve hit it with Latinos and women, then we haven’t done our job,” said one highly placed Democrat who requested anonymity in discussing the Obama campaign’s strategic thinking.
Another task was to answer Republican assertions that Obama’s was a failed presidency, marked by division and a string of broken promises.
With Romney closeted in debate preparation, his running mate took up the campaign’s cudgel Tuesday, comparing Obama to President Carter at a rally in suburban Cleveland.
“When it comes to jobs, President Obama makes the Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days,” Ryan told about 1,000 supporters. “If we fired Jimmy Carter then, why would we rehire Barack Obama now?”
The response from Democrats was to cite a litany of achievements — canted, of course, to place the president in the most favorable light.
In his remarks, Castro joined others in praising Obama for creating 4.5 million private sector jobs, a figure offset by population growth and sizable job losses in the public sector. The result has been stubbornly high unemployment throughout Obama’s presidency, a fact that was acknowledged only indirectly with statements that more needed to be done.
Much of the program was devoted to a defense of Obama’s healthcare overhaul, which the White House was not always politically eager to embrace.
A series of Obama supporters offered tributes to the plan, among them Stacey Lihn, whose daughter, Zoe, was born with a congenital heart defect. Because of the costly surgeries required to fix her heart, Zoe used up more than half of her lifetime health insurance benefits by the time she was 6 months old. Lihn lauded Obama for eliminating such caps in his signature healthcare law.
“Republicans may see ‘Romneycare’ as a scarlet letter,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said of the expansive healthcare plan Romney enacted as Massachusetts governor yet seldom discusses in his campaign. “But for us Democrats, ‘Obamacare’ is a badge of honor.”
The president will close the convention with his acceptance speech Thursday night at the open-air Bank of America Stadium, a few blocks from the convention hall. Even as occasional showers doused Charlotte on Tuesday, convention organizers said the speech would remain al fresco “rain or shine” — so long as it doesn’t pose a safety hazard.
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.