Kerry, Granholm and Giffords Light Up Crowd on Final Night of Dem Convention

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Despite tropical humidity, buckets of rain, a last-minute venue change, wacko anti-choicers shouting on every corner, and lots of disappointed ticket-holders, the Dems got done what they came to do in Charlotte. They revved up the base and possibly picked up a few male working-class voters with pugnacious appeals to patriotism and a focus on manufacturing jobs.

Michelle Obama’s speech was so thrilling, and Bill Clinton’s such a barnburner, that I feared anything that followed – including the President’s address – would be anti-climactic. And so it was Thursday night in the Time Warner Arena.

It was never going to be 2008 again. Obama is now an incumbent and has been battling a maniacally obstructive GOP for nearly four years. His approval rating was a few points into the negative zone, according to Gallup, when the convention started. He looked humbled – and possibly a touch chastened? – as he spoke to the American people about his record. But he is still considered a likable figure and reaps benefits from the stark contrast to his rivals – a pair of snake-oil salesmen with a mean vision of America where the rich rule and women’s bodies are thrown under the bus in order to convince lower-income social conservatives to vote against their economic interests.

Thursday evening’s highs including a rousing defense of the auto bailout from the feisty Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan and Current TV host, and a star-studded celebrity line-up including Mary J. Blige, Kerry Washington, Scarlett Johansson and Eva Longoria.  Former Florida governor and political cross-dresser Charlie Crist, a man who worships Ronald Reagan, drew applause with the line,  “I didn’t leave the Republican party, the Republican party left me,” and seemed more enthusiastic about protecting Social Security and Medicare than many of the long-term Dems.

John Kerry served up a homerun with his zinger: “Ask Osama Bin Laden if his life is better now than four years ago!” Kerry delievered a scathing assesment of the profit-obsessed Romney as a man unfit to run a country.

The most emotional part of the night was Gabby Gifford's leading the Pledge of Allegiance, her halting steps a reminder of the horror of gun violence. I burst into tears, as did several folks around me.

Then, finally, the moment came. It was late, and folks were tired, and an awful lot had already been said -- several times over by that point.

I have always felt that Obama’s reputed oratory prowess is overrated. After the illiteracy of George W. Bush, his rhetorical competence and the obvious intelligence on display in his speeches were a breath of fresh air. But for me, at least, there was often something wanting in his ability to emotionally connect and to deliver truly memorable material.  He has a tendency to go long on empty assurances and short on details. At his best, he is able to inspire with lofty musings on broad themes, as he did in his famous race speech.

But last night Obama did not bring his "A" game. His somewhat flat delivery and the dissonance created by populist language that sounded hollow given some of the bank-centric policies of his administration were unsettling.

There was hopeful talk, but a paucity of specifics. We’re going to bring back manufacturing jobs, he suggested, but he didn’t say how they could support a middle class in the absence of strong unions. There were ominous hints of a so-called "Grand Bargain" on Medicare and Social Security as the president signaled his belief in the false logic of deficit hawks.

Obama mentioned the boldness of Franklin Delano Roosevelt – a president notably absent from his list of favorites in the past. But while Obama benefits from comparisons to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, he falls short when compared to a truly transformative president like FDR. Obama talks tough on Wall Street, but his administration is full of its advocates. He had nothing to say about the campaign finance reform needed to curtail its influence. There was much ado about the middle class, but I don’t recall hearing the word “poverty” a single time – a notable omission at a time of growing income inequality and a 15 percent poverty rate.

Inside the arena, there was occassional applause and cheering, but it lacked the verve of some of the earlier spasms of enthusiasm.

As I was thinking all this, I could not help but notice the 12-year-old African American boy sitting beside me holding up his Obama sign, with obvious pride and affection beaming from his face. I’m a North Carolinian, and I know how much having President Obama in Charlotte means in a state where the bitter history of race relations still hurts. Whatever his failings, Obama will forever be associated with a great healing in America, and in that sense, even if his speech did not bring the house down, his very presence was a reminder that change, though difficult, is never out of reach. It would be difficult to overestimate the power of that lesson.

Overall, the Democratic National Convention had much more to offer Americans than its counterpart in Tampa – an inclusive vibe, high production quality, a thankful absence of Clint Eastwood-style embarrassments and an expressed desire to preserve opportunity for all. The GOP will have its work cut out to win this election. As the Dems head home from Charlotte today, they will know that their man, Barack Obama, has been well-feted and stands a good chance of getting four more years in the White House.

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