CHARLOTTE, NC — It was part New Year’s Eve, part Fourth of July, with a little Mardi Gras thrown in.
By the time President Barack Obama finished his rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention Thursday night the city was rocking.
As people poured out of the Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte resembled nothing so much as a giant street party, and every face wore a smile.
It had been a long time coming. The evening was carefully planned to stir the emotions, from the entertainment to the speeches.
Mary J. Blige belted out “One,” the Foo Fighters performed “There goes my hero,” and even the normally soporific Sen. John Kerry primed the crowd with an address that was as much comedy routine as political diatribe.
By the time Obama took the stage, the tens of thousands of delegates, journalists, guests and onlookers went wild. The Time Warner Cable Arena could barely contain the ovation.
What they heard was an Obama like they'd never heard him before. His speech had inspiration, exhortation and an undertone of acid.
Gone is the Great Post-Partisan Compromiser. This man is angry.
“When you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation,” said the president. “And on every issue, the choice you face won’t be just between two candidates or two parties. It will be a choice between two different paths for America.”
Those two paths lead to radically different futures, he explained. The country can go forward, to a new and brighter future where every child has the gift of opportunity, seniors have a dignified and assured retirement, health care is affordable and no one is limited by race, gender or sexual orientation.
Or it can go backward to an America where the privileged few run the world and dictate how the hoi polloi can live; where women have no control over their bodies and the social values of the most conservative dictate the behavior of the rank and file.
The choice is yours, he said.
“If you turn away now … if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible, well, change will not happen,” he said. Instead, Americans' lives will be dictated by “lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election, and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should be making for themselves.”
The themes were vintage Obama; he dotted the speech liberally with the words “hope” and “change,” but he spent just as much time targeting those who have stood in the way — the elite, the special interests, the intransigent opposition — in short, the Republicans.
More Highway 2012: Tampa's torrential RNC
“Now, our friends down in Tampa, at the Republican convention, were more than happy to talk about everything they think is wrong with America, but they didn’t have much to say about how they’d make it right,” he said. “They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan. And that’s because all they had to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last thirty years: 'Have a surplus? Try a tax cut … Deficit too high? Try another. Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.'”
The crowd loved that. One of the biggest hands Obama got was a seemingly throwaway line toward the end of his speech.
“I recognize that times have changed since I frst spoke to this convention,” he said. “The times have changed, and so have I. I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.”
The crowd stood and roared, interrupting his delivery for more than a minute.
The central theme of the speech was, of course, that nothing was impossible with grit and determination, and the backing of the voters.
“But know this, America: Our problems can be solved,” said the president.
“If you believe that new plants and factories can dot our landscape; that new energy can power our future; that new schools can provide ladders of opportunity to this nation of dreamers; if you believe in a country where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules, then I need you to vote this November,” he concluded.
Judging by the crowd, the message was well received.
Obama was preceded by a carefully selected roster of speakers who reinforced the basic message. Over and over, various dignitaries, including the vice president, drove home three basic points: General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead, and Mitt Romney is a soulless plutocrat who does not care about ordinary people.
Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, was perhaps the most forceful on the latter issue, as she narrated the horrors of the auto plant closings:
“[Romney] loves our cars so much, they have their own elevator,” she said. “But the people who design, build, and sell those cars? Well, in Romney's world, the cars get the elevator; the workers get the shaft!”
Raucous laughter and applause filled the house.
“Mitt Romney says his business experience qualifies him to be president. Sure, he's made lots of money. Good for him. But how did he make that fortune, and at whose expense? Too often, he made it at the expense of middle-class Americans. Year after year, it was profit before people.”
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who ran against George W. Bush in 2004, was unusually animated on Thursday, and had the audience in the palm of his hand. Widely accused by the Republicans of being a “flip-flopper” in 2004, Kerry returned the favor with interest.
He went into Romney’s frequent policy shifts, especially regarding international affairs. Kerry is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
“It isn’t fair to say that Mitt Romney doesn’t have a position on Afghanistan,” said Kerry. “He has every position … Mr. Romney, here’s a little advice: Before you debate Barack Obama on foreign policy, you’d better finish the debate with yourself.” (Three presidential debates are slated for next month.)
He also excoriated Romney for his gaffe-studded trips to London, Israel and Poland.
”You know … it wasn’t a goodwill mission,” he said. “It was a blooper reel.”
And Kerry combined a common Republican reproach with what is, perhaps, Obama’s most memorable achievement:
“Ask Osama bin Laden is he is better off now than he was four years ago,” deadpanned Kerry, as the crowd laughed and cheered.
It was a memorable night, with a star-studded cast. Actresses Scarlett Johansson, Kerry Washington and Eva Longoria were all on hand to reinforce the “Get out the vote” message, and also, of course, to add beauty and ethnic diversity to the mix.
Longoria, who told of a difficult childhood where she worked in a fast-food restaurant, appealed for sense in the tax code. “The Eva Longoria who worked at Wendy's flipping burgers — she needed a tax break. But the Eva Longoria who works on movie sets does not,” she said.
The evening ended with Obama’s appeal for support, and his triumphant climax:
“America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now. Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place. Yes our road is longer, but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on Earth.”
The roar of the crowd almost blew the roof off the arena.
Outside the convention hall, a group stood with a large, handmade “Republicans for Obama” sign.
It seemed that there were no holdouts left in the Queen City, the largest city in a coveted swing state. Obama and his campaign can only hope the movement spreads.