First lady Michelle Obama headlined the opening Tuesday of the Democratic National Convention, an emotion-charged finale to an opening act designed to build enthusiasm among women and minorities whose votes are critical to re-electing her husband.
“We must work like never before,” she told the convention, urging them to help President Barack Obama defeat Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. She asked supporters to rally to her husband’s side as they did in first helping him win the White House four years ago.
“And we must once again come together and stand together for the man we can trust to keep moving this great county forward, my husband, our president, Barack Obama,” she told the cheering delegates.
In a largely personal tale, the first lady tried to connect her husband to working Americans, talking about his humble beginnings, his decision to forgo a high-paying career in favor of community work and public service, and about his life as a loving husband and father. She recounted her husband’s modest upbringing by a single mother and his grandparents and later their life as a young married couple who had student loan bills higher than their mortgage.
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“Today, after so many struggles and triumphs and moments that have tested my husband in ways I never could have imagined, I have seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are – no, no it reveals who you are,” she said to a thunderous ovation.
The first lady – lauded earlier by her brother, Craig Robinson, and her sister-in-law, Maya Soetoro-Ng – told the thousands at Time Warner Cable Arena that Obama had worked tirelessly to make the economy more stable, ease college students loans and improve health care.
“He believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity . . . you do not slam it shut behind you . . . No, you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed,” she said.
The audience erupted into their longest, loudest cheers of the night when Michelle Obama came to the stage to the tune Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” They waved thousands of blue signs: “We Love Michelle’’ and interrupted her from time to time with chants of “Four more years!”
Her appeal capped a day that included the adoption of a party platform that for the first time embraces gay marriage but dropped the party’s earlier support for Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital. Republicans quickly pounced on the omission, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia saying the administration was distancing itself from Israel.
The platform also stirred controversy with another omission – no reference to God. It also included strong support for abortion rights.
The evening saw a diverse parade of speakers that included San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the first Latino keynote speaker in convention history, as well as the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the first woman to reach the rank of Army three-star general, African-American members of Congress, and the convention chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Together, they served as a not-so-subtle nod to the changing demographics of the nation.
"My family’s story isn’t special. What’s special is the America that makes our story possible,” Castro said. “Ours is a nation like no other – a place where great journeys can be made in a single generation. . . . No matter who you are or where you come from, the path is always forward."
More than 300 miles away, Obama used the campus of a historically black university in Norfolk, Va., as his last campaign stop before he heads to Charlotte on Wednesday for the final two days of the convention.
"We’ve come too far to turn back now," Obama said at Norfolk State University. "We’ve created a lot of jobs. But we’ve got more jobs to create."
Speaking to an enthusiastic, primarily African-American audience, Obama cast the election as a choice between a president who looks out for the middle class and a candidate who’d raise taxes on them to cut taxes for the wealthy. He repeated his warning that Republicans are expecting dispirited Democrats to help them get elected and are running ads to underscore that “everything’s bad and it’s all Obama’s fault.”
“They’re counting on you, maybe not to vote for Romney, but they’re counting on you to feel discouraged,” he said.
Major Hayes, 52, called Obama “the greatest president we’ve ever had.” He waved off the latest Republican thrust that the U.S. isn’t as well as off as it was four years ago – and carried a sign that read “Give Me Obama or Give me Death.”
“Everything is stable now, it was going down fast when (President George W.) Bush left,” he said. “They didn’t build Rome in a day and you can’t expect he could fix in four years the mess that took Republicans eight years.”
Obama said he planned to watch the first lady’s speech at the White House, with their two daughters, and would try not to let the girls see him cry, as her speeches make him “misty.”
The nearly 6,000 delegates from across the nation who poured into Charlotte made up a noticeably younger, more diverse crowd than the smaller group that met in Tampa last week for the Republican National Convention. Women make up half the DNC delegates. Twenty-seven percent are African-American while 13 percent are Hispanic.
“President Obama believes in the promise of America. President Obama believes in you. That’s the American dream – el sueno Americano,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra of California. “Dr. King marched for it. Cesar Chavez organized for it. And this fall, we have to vote for it.”
Lisa Fricke, a retired teacher and convention delegate from Nebraska, said she has tried to convince members of the large Hispanic population of her town about the need to cast ballots.
“I don’t think they understand how important this vote is,’’ said Fricke, who wore half-dozen buttons, including those that said: “Proud Nebraska Democrat” and “Educators for Obama.”
At times the convention had a party feel, with delegates dancing to the tunes of songwriter Ledisi. They applauded when former President Jimmy Carter spoke to them by video. They listened to speeches from top officials with labor and abortion rights groups and Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. And they reserved some of their loudest cheers to any mention of the federal health care law and abortion rights.
“For me, politics is an extension of my role as a mother and a grandmother,” Pelosi said. “For the Democratic women of the House, our work is not about the next election, but rather the next generation.”
Easily the most emotional moment of the night was when the audience watched a tribute to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Kennedy died in August 2009 and gave a farewell speech at the 2008 convention. He reminded the crowd that overhauling the nation’s health care system was the cause of his life. He died before it passed.
This is the first convention in at least 56 years where one of the Kennedy brothers – President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Edward Kennedy – were not prominent players.
But the crowd roared when excerpts of Edward Kennedy’s 1994 debate with Romney – then vying for Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat – were shown. Romney was a moderate then, supporting abortion rights, and Kennedy tore into him for changing his positions.
The video ended with Kennedy passing a generational torch to Obama. And the tribute ended with the crowd chanting, "Teddy, Teddy, Teddy."