CHARLOTTE — Former president Bill Clinton delivered a spirited defense of President Obama’s handling of the nation’s struggling economy here Wednesday night, criticizing the agenda and philosophy of Mitt Romney and accusing the Republican Party of ideological rigidity and an unwillingness to compromise.
In a speech formally nominating Obama for a second term, Clinton argued that the president has spent the past four years putting in place policies that will lead to a more vibrant and balanced economy and asserted that, despite problems, Americans are “clearly better off” than they were when the president was sworn into office.
“No president — not me or any of my predecessors — no one could have fully repaired all the damage in just four years,” Clinton said. Obama, he added, “has laid the foundations for a new modern successful economy, a shared prosperity, and if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it.”
Clinton took the stage just after 10:30 p.m. to a chorus of cheers and applause, with delegates waving signs that said “Middle Class First” while his 1992 campaign theme song, “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow),” blared on the public address system.
After Clinton concluded, almost 50 minutes later, Obama walked on stage to acknowledge the work done on behalf of his reelection. The two men shook hands, embraced, smiled and waved to the audience and then walked off together. At that point, the roll call of the states began to formalize Obama’s nomination.
Clinton’s speech was the rhetorical and emotional highlight of the second day of the convention, which also featured a primetime address by Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Senate candidate in Massachusetts.
After Tuesday’s strong opening night program, Wednesday’s session ran into early problems, as the Democrats were forced to clean up two controversies in the platform they adopted on Tuesday. By voice vote, delegates approved changes to declare Jerusalem as the preferred capital of Israel and to reinsert a reference to God, which had been omitted in the original text.
With the change on Israel policy, Democrats reversed an omission that drew sharp criticism from some Jewish organizations and from Republicans who saw it as evidence of Obama distancing the United States from a critical ally. The convention chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, called for a vote three times before ruling that the measure to add Jerusalem had passed, although some delegates booed from the convention floor.
Clinton spoke on the day Obama arrived in this convention city from Washington and prepared to deliver his Thursday night acceptance speech. But threats of severe weather forced a sudden change in plans for the final night of the three-day event.
Convention organizers announced that Obama would give his acceptance speech indoors at Time Warner Cable Arena, ditching plans to stage the event before a crowd of 74,000 people outdoors at Bank of America Stadium.
Clinton said the most important question voters should ask is what kind of country they want in the future. “If you want a winner-take-all, you’re-on-your-own, you should support the Republican ticket,” he said. “If you want a country of shared prosperity and shared responsibility — a we’re-all-in-this-together society — you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”
Clinton used his speech both to defend Obama’s record and to rebut charges aimed at the president at last week’s Republican convention.
He attacked Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan for criticizing Obama’s $716 billion cut in Medicare, part of the health-care law passed in 2010. Noting that Ryan has made the same cuts in his budget, he said, “You know it takes some brass to attack a guy for doing something you did.”
He attacked Republicans for accusing Obama of gutting the work requirement in the welfare reform act approved during the Clinton administration. The claim, he said, “is just not true.” He ridiculed Romney’s deficit reduction plan, saying it doesn’t pass the simple test of arithmetic. “The numbers don’t add up,” he said
Clinton sought to define November’s election as a clear, even stark choice, arguing that Republicans believe in “a parallel universe” about what makes the economy tick. “In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president’s reelection was pretty simple: We left him a total mess, he hasn’t finished cleaning it up yet, so fire him and put us back in,” Clinton said.
Clinton, with an eye on independent swing voters, talked at some length about how the GOP has become more rigid and uncooperative. “Though I often disagree with Republicans, I never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate President Obama and the Democrats,” Clinton said. He added that one reason Obama deserved reelection was that “he is still committed to constructive cooperation.”
Clinton and Warren represent two different wings of the Democractic party — with Clinton the original architect of the centrist New Democrat philosophy that built bridges to business and brought the party back to the White House in the 1990s, and Warren a strong voice for the progressive grassroots activists who have led an attack on Wall Street, big corporations and the so-called “one percent.”
Warren, the Harvard Law School professor who is fighting to unseat Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), got a huge response when she took the stage just ahead of Clinton. She delivered a populist blast, attacking what she said was a rigged system in which Wall Street and corporate America have profited while the middle class has been “chipped, squeezed and hammered.”
She sharply criticized Romney and his vice presidential running mate Paul Ryan for a budget blueprint that she said would “pulverize financial reform, voucher-ize Medicare, and vaporize Obamacare.” But she saved some of her toughest rhetoric for Romney’s contention that corporations are people.
“No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people,” she said. “People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters. That matters because we don’t run this country for corporations. We run it for people. And that’s why we need Barack Obama.”
Wednesday’s other speakers systematically tore apart virtually every aspect of Romney’s record and views. For the second straight night, Democratic speakers highlighted Romney’s personal wealth to cast him as far out of touch with the nation’s middle class.
“Mitt Romney’s only bottom line is the one at the end of his own bank statement,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.). “The problem is that he confuses his own narrow self-interest — and that of people like him — with the national interest.”
Three workers who were laid off by companies owned by Romney’s private equity firm, Bain Capital, presented a scathing critique of Romney’s business ethics by touching on themes the Obama campaign has hammered all summer.
“I don’t think Mitt Romney is a bad man,” said Randy Johnson, who worked for Ampad, a paper manufacturer. “I don’t fault him for the fact that some companies win and some companies lose. That’s a fact of life. What I fault him for is making money without a moral compass.”
Obama enjoys an advantage over Romney among female voters, and Wednesday’s speakers sought to build on that advantage by attacking Republicans on issues ranging from abortion and free coverage for contraception to the GOP pledge to repeal Obama’s health-care law if the party wins in November.
Wednesday’s program also featured a procession of liberal leaders and advocates that included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and women’s advocate Sandra Fluke.
Fluke, the Georgetown Law student who was prevented from testifying before Congress on a contraceptive issue, took the stage during the coveted 10 p.m. hour and likened a Romney presidency to an “offensive, obsolete relic of our past.” She referenced an attack on her by conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, which Romney declined to rebuke.
“Your new president could be a man who stands by when a public figure tries to silence a private citizen with hateful slurs, who won’t stand up to the slurs, or to any of the extreme, bigoted voices in his own party,” Fluke said.
The decision to move Thursday’s session indoors did not go unchallenged by the Republicans, who charged that the event was moved because there was not enough enthusiasm for the president to fill the football stadium.
But Obama campaign officials rejected that characterization, adding that the president was disappointed he would not be able to replicate the image of his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, where he addressed some 84,000 supporters from the 50-yard line at Denver’s Invesco Field.
“We’re all disappointed, because we had 65,000 ticket holders plus 19,000 people who were on the waiting list, excited to hear him deliver his speech tomorrow night,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. “This isn’t a call we wanted to make.”
Scott Wilson in Charlotte and Nia-Malika Henderson in West Lebanon, N.H., contributed to this report.