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The Boston Globe

Politics

news analysis

President’s goals rely more on resolve than specifics

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Obama’s appeal for a second term Thursday evening came wrapped in economic aspirations that struck a familiar promise, one of hope for Americans struggling to get ahead.

Voters looking for a specific and credible plan to pull America out of the economic doldrums may have been disappointed. But by rolling out a package of goals that he can champion over the final two months of the campaign, packaged in an optimistic vision, Obama tried to reset terms of the debate and shift the conversation away from Republican Mitt Romney’s stinging rebukes over the economy.

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Obama said his ideas for education, manufacturing, and energy — some of them drawn from earlier proposals — offer the prospect of opportunities and better times for everyday Americans. While his acceptance speech bore echoes of his sweeping 2008 promise of hope and change, this time it came with a request for patience.

“The truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades,’’ he said. He did not apologize or make excuses for the slow recovery, though he alluded several times to the pain and difficulty it has caused.

Obama’s climactic celebration at the Democratic National Convention lacked an expected explosion of fireworks or even the traditional cascade of balloons, after it was hastily forced indoors from a stadium by the threat of thunderstorms.

So while a key theme of the Democratic convention was ‘forward,’ the road map remains a bit sketchy.

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Otherwise, Obama’s three-day extravaganza unfolded largely as Democrats scripted it, with few of the tensions and surprises that marked the Republican convention in Tampa last week.

Thousands of party regulars will board outbound planes from Charlotte on Friday freshly energized and with a refocused message, prepared to take on Republicans in an election that both candidates have cast as a choice between starkly competing visions.

The president and his allies presented a broadly rendered, populist theme over three nights of the convention, portraying Obama as the leader of a compassionate and diverse party with a plan to use the tools of government to help shape a middle-class resurgence. At every opportunity, they depicted Romney as an unrepentant corporate raider who wants to reduce taxes on the wealthy and eliminate social service benefits and education programs.

Democrats hope these messages will serve as a set of blocks from which to bolt for the final, two-month sprint to Nov. 6.

But did Obama offer enough of a vision Thursday to actually win over middle-class voters?

Certainly the president presented more details of his economic goals than Romney offered last week in his acceptance speech, with a handful of bullet points that could have been pulled from a State of the Union speech. But Obama offered no explanation of how he would fund the programs to reach these goals. Nor did he describe what deficit-cutting elements he would accept from the 2010 Simpson-Bowles debt commission plan, although he did say what trade-offs he would not accept: no cuts in programs, or the elimination of popular items such as mortgage deductions, to pay for tax cuts for the rich.

So while a key theme of the Democratic convention was “forward,’’ the road map remains a bit sketchy.

A new set of unemployment figures due out Friday, meanwhile, could dampen enthusiasm and limit the size of any postconvention bounce for Obama. Economists did not expect the news to be any different than previous months, with little job growth to show and stubborn unemployment in the range of 8.3 percent.

Democrats said they survived the convention without the sort of distractions suffered by Romney in Tampa. Their biggest unforced error was dropping, from the party platform, a call for Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital. After an outcry from Republicans and some allies, the president ordered a reversal and the delegates quickly reinserted the language on Wednesday.

“The show itself has been pretty good,’’ said Democratic consultant Tad Devine, who was head of convention delegate selection in 1988 for Michael Dukakis, former Massachusetts governor, and advised the campaigns of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

Devine said there were “hiccups’’ in Charlotte but contended that is typical. The Charlotte proceedings went more smoothly than the Tampa event, where actor Clint Eastwood’s rambling dialogue with an empty chair on the final night generated negative publicity and distracted the media from Romney’s message.

“There’s a difference between having a hiccup and throwing up in public,’’ Devine said, “and I would describe Clint Eastwood’s performance as throwing up.’’

Obama’s convention goals were different than Romney’s. In Tampa, the former Massachusetts governor — with mixed results — had to unify a party that was fractured by a tough primary. Speakers at times appeared to be promoting themselves as much or more than the candidate. Romney also sought to soften his public image by emphasizing his devotion to family and his work as a former leader of his Mormon ward in Belmont.

Obama, on the other hand, had to put forth an answer to parry Republican attacks that he mishandled the economic recovery. Democrats need voters to believe former president Bill Clinton’s forcefully presented argument Wednesday night that the economy was in such a shambles when Obama assumed office that it was impossible to fix in a single term.

Obama also must convince voters he has a credible plan to improve the economy more quickly. His success on that score can be measured in coming days by looking at polls — not just the horse race but at voters’ perceptions of Obama’s handling of the economy. Polls thus far have shown that voters trust Romney more to handle the economy.

“If he closes that gap in the course of this week, the convention will have been a huge success,’’ Devine said.

The president, however, did little Thursday night to satisfy those in his party who want to see a more forceful defense of the health care law. He made only passing mention of his signature domestic achievement.

Dukakis, after attending a Massachusetts delegation breakfast in a Charlotte hotel this week, said Obama needs to more forcefully sell the overhaul as part of hiseffort to woo the middle class.

“We have not made that case,’’ he said “The fundamental issue is whether working Americans and their families can have affordable health care, and that’s a message we really have to deliver.’’

From here, Obama is flying to New Hampshire and Iowa on Friday, and then embarking on a two-day bus tour of Florida. Swing-state delegates said they are energized and ready to go to work back home. After rallying nonstop for most of the week, they said they will need to work hard, door-to-door, to counteract an expected barrage of advertising by outside groups backing Romney.

RRS Stewart, an architectural consultant from Dubuque, Iowa, danced and swayed on the convention floor before Obama’s speech. Her energy and determination, she said, ``have increased exponentially.’’

A public workers’ union leader from Ames, Andy Bock, stood next to her. He planned to take an Amtrak train home that rolled from Charlotte at 1 a.m.

“I’ll get home,’’ he said, “and hit the ground running.’’

Christopher Rowland can be reached at crowland@
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRowland.

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