By the time Michelle Obama walked onstage for her prime-time speech, the emerging theme of the convention was being displayed on a hand-held sign near the entrance.
“Don’t Be Afraid to Celebrate!” it read.
Delegates arrived here from around the country Tuesday hoping to recast the presidential campaign and reenergize their party. Instead of focusing on President Obama’s unfulfilled promises or the serious problems facing the country, they spoke mostly about what has been accomplished and what can still be done. After years of negativity and partisan divisiveness, they sought solace in a community of like minds. And after years of merely defending Obama’s policies, they celebrated some of them.
The past three years have exacted a toll on even the most ardent Democrats here. They have spent much of their energy propping up the president amid a declining economy, a flourishing conservative movement and a Congress that remains all but gridlocked.
They came here, some delegates said, to remind each other — and the country — that everything isn’t so bad.
“We need to show the world that we are proud of the things this president has done,” said Mike Golojuch, 68, a delegate from Hawaii. “Has it been perfect? No. But there’s a lot that has gone right. We need to shout about it. We need to own it.”
It is a strategy that comes with risk for Obama’s supporters. By touting the president’s record, they enhance it as a target for opponents. By boasting of his accomplishments, they risk trivializing the problems that remain. Polling shows that more Americans strongly oppose Obama’s health-care law than strongly support it. They give Obama’s stewardship of the economy consistently negative reviews.
Golojuch arrived in Charlotte to find everyone shouting: the carnival barker on the corner selling 62 kinds of Obama buttons; the rock band singing a tribute to the president’s daughter Malia; the Planned Parenthood supporters marching in pink shirts; the Obama impersonator walking on stilts; the man with a megaphone reading a list of every bill Obama has signed into law.
Moments before the first speaker took the stage to pound the gavel and start the convention, delegates broke into spontaneous chants of “Four more years!” and “Fired up, ready to go!”
“Thank goodness,” Golojuch said. “We needed some fun.”
He had flown in a few days earlier from Hawaii, taking a week off from his job in human resources for a county government. It was a good time for a vacation, he said. His county budget had recently been cut by 10 percent, and Golojuch was in charge of looking over a list of job titles to judge which ones might be expendable. He had agreed to take a 5 percent pay cut and then paid more than $6,000 to travel to Charlotte with his wife and son, raising money for the trip by e-mailing friends and family.
He had spent much of the past three years explaining the problems in his life with phrases that became all too familiar: “The president is only one man.” “These problems take more time.” “Democrats feel the economy, too.”
“I’m done just making excuses for the bad stuff,” he said. “I want to talk about the things we’re proud of.”
Across the convention floor Tuesday, Democrats were proud of many things, and they listed them for each other again and again. Appointing two women to the Supreme Court, including the first Latina. Repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Drawing down troops in Iraq. An auto bailout and a stimulus package that they said pulled the country back from economic collapse.
One of the delegates, Chandra Dillard of South Carolina, wore an “I Love Obamacare” button over her heart.
“The Affordable Care Act is a wonderful thing, especially for women,” she said. “I am completely in his debt for being able to have mammograms and pap smears and our annual gynecological exams. That’s good, and I don’t need to apologize to anybody for that.”
Dillard, a 47-year-old member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, was walking off a trolley toward the Time Warner Cable Arena for Tuesday night’s proceedings when she saw a sign above the entrance: “Be Heard.”
She nodded in agreement.
“I’m an unapologetic Democrat,” she said. She said Obama has not accomplished everything she had hoped for four years ago. “But who has?”
The Democrats on the floor said they have experienced some of the hardships they heard about last week at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, where Mitt Romney and others directed a spotlight on Obama’s shortcomings and the perilous state of the economy and the national debt.
But here, rallying together Tuesday, they saw strengths even in Obama’s perceived failings. Jean Allen, the wife of an Illinois delegate, lamented that her son hadn’t found a job after he graduated from college. But, she said, Obama’s health-care overhaul had allowed her son to receive coverage under her insurance plan.
“Tonight we’re going to be celebrating the accomplishments, but this election — it’s a worry,” she said. “Unemployment is high. The deficit is out of control. Those are all concerns. But I just think the president needs more time.”
More time was a theme that echoed across the convention floor. For Beth-anne Thomas, a delegate from Colorado who was a volunteer at the last convention, a lot has changed since the night four years ago when Obama accepted the nomination at Denver’s Invesco Field.
Shortly after Obama’s inauguration, Thomas was laid off from her IT job; it took her 10 months to find a new one. She doesn’t blame the president — “it’s never just one person’s fault,” she said — but instead thinks about all he’s done right, including ending the war in Iraq, enabling her son-in-law to come home from his Army service there.
“Look at it as glass-half-full,” said Thomas, 56. “We haven’t gone as far as we would’ve liked to have gone, but we have made progress. You can’t expect the moon, but celebrate the little victories along the way.”