CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Barack Obama shared center stage at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night with Bill Clinton, an enormously popular predecessor who told an overflow and enthralled crowd that he had no doubt that the president could turn the troubled economy around if given a second term. The tens of thousands of delegates and supporters who jammed into Time Warner Cable Arena responded with sustained applause and standing ovations. They waved signs, "Middle Class First," and chanted "Four more years!"
"I love our country -- and I know we're coming back," Clinton said. "For more than 200 years, through every crisis, we've always come out stronger than we went in. And we will again as long as we do it together. We champion the cause for which our founders pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor -- to form a more perfect union. If that's what you believe, if that's what you want, we have to re-elect President Barack Obama." The 42nd president remains hugely popular among Democrats, and his speech was hotly anticipated by delegates yearning for a full-throated defense of Obama's economic policies after months of attacks by Republicans on the No. 1 issue in the presidential race.
Before he arrived on stage, the delegates and guests began clapping and dancing along with a video that played Clinton's campaign theme song, Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." During the speech, the former president had the delegates leaping to their feet as he delivered a detailed, point-by-point rebuttal to every Republican criticism of Obama, from the 2009 stimulus package to a recent change to welfare regulations.
The speech was vintage Clinton. He frequently veered from his prepared remarks -- and went way long -- and had the crowd in stitches. "We love you, Bill!" they screamed.
Obama had watched Clinton's speech from the arena after arriving in Charlotte Wednesday afternoon. He appeared from behind the stage after Clinton's 47-minute speech to deafening cheers. The two men hugged as the Tom Petty song "I Won't Back Down" played.
Clinton not only blamed Republicans for causing the problems in the economy in the first place, but for preventing Obama from allowing the economy to fully recover. For example, he said, House Republicans have failed to pass the president's jobs plan that would have created more than a million new jobs. He argued that it's unreasonable to expect a total recovery in one term, but that Obama has created jobs and cut taxes through the recovery, the auto industry bailout and an agreement with management, labor and environmental groups to double car mileage over the next few years.
Clinton's endorsement was meant to signal a "good economy seal of approval" for Obama, a promise that Obama's policies will bring back the peace and prosperity of the 1990s, when a booming economy created millions of jobs, stocks soared, and a flood of tax revenues helped balance the federal budget for the first time in a generation.
"A lot of Americans are still angry and frustrated with the economy. Though employment is growing, banks are beginning to lend and even housing prices are picking up a bit, too many people do not feel it yet," Clinton said. "I had experienced the same thing in 1994 and early 1995. Our policies were working and the economy was growing but most people didn't feel it yet."
"President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did. Listen to me now, no president -- not me or any of my predecessors -- no one could have fully repaired all the damage in just four years," Clinton said "But he has laid the foundations . . . and if you'll renew the president's contract you will feel it. You will feel it "Are we where we want to be today? No. Is the president satisfied? Of course not," Clinton said. "But are we better off than we were when he took office?"
"Yes!" the audience screamed.
It came from a man who arrived slowly, even grudgingly, at Obama's side after first watching his wife lose a hard-fought battle for the 2008 Democratic nomination, then had to watch Obama coast to a solid majority that had twice eluded Clinton.
But the two have grown closer, and Clinton's warm embrace Wednesday signaled not only his support, but his belief that he and his family's future are tied up in Obama's. And as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton is now one of the most popular members of the Obama administration and is not involved in politics. On Wednesday, as the convention convened, she landed in East Timor on a six-nation tour of Asia.
Delegates continue to be enamored with the former president, and it was easy to see why his speech had been expected to be one of the highlights of the three-day convention. They laughed at his jokes, leaped to their feet and cheered almost as he was running for president.
"He could sneeze and I would applaud," said Barb Hammon, 60, a nurse and convention delegate from Michigan. "His support of Obama means a lot to me." Clinton, who served from 1993 to 2001, came into office at the end of a recession and is credited by some for helping the nation achieve a budget surplus. With millions still out of work and trillion-dollar deficits sending the national debt soaring, Obama is looking for Clinton to vouch for his approach. The nearly 6,000 delegates saw a series of videos about small businesses successes and the auto industry recovery and heard from former employees at companies controlled by Bain Capital, a private equity firm founded and run by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
"I don't think Mitt Romney is a bad man," said one of those employees, Randy Johnson. "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. I fault him for putting profits ahead of working people like me. But that's just Romney economics."
On Wednesday, Clinton framed the election as a choice between an Obama second term that he said would boost the middle class and a Romney administration that would not. "The most important question is, what kind of country do you want to live in?" Clinton said in the prepared remarks. "If you want a you're-on-your-own, winner-take-all society, you should support the Republican ticket. 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 countered Republican attacks that Obama both weakened Medicare and Clinton's own welfare to work initiative. He noted Romney's running mate Paul Ryan had accused Obama of "robbing" Medicare of $716 billion, noting that it's the same amount of money that Ryan has proposed in his budget. "It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did," said Clinton said, in one of his frequent adlibs from his prepared remarks.
He called the welfare charge a real "doozy," "As their campaign pollster said "we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers." Now that is true. I couldn't have said it better myself -- I just hope you remember that every time you see the ad."
Clinton had to compete against the season opener for the National Football League, with the Dallas Cowboys at the New York Giants, which NBC aired instead of the convention.
The game was initially set for Thursday, but the game was moved to Wednesday after Obama's speech was scheduled for that night.
Before Clinton took the stage, Democrats worked furiously to contain a controversy over the party platform, reinstating language that maintains Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The party also reinstated the word "God" into the platform.
Republicans seized on the omissions, and Democratic Party officials acknowledged that Obama had personally intervened to see the language returned to the document. The second day of the convention -- so crowded that delegates were prevented from coming into Time Warner Cable Arena -- included speeches from a slew of elected officials and supporters, including Elizabeth Warren, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts and former Obama administration consumer financial protection advocate and Sandra Fluke, who sparked criticism from conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh after testifying before Congress in support of Obama's decision to require some religious employers to offer access to contraception.
"Mitt Romney? He wants to give tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires," Warren said in prepared remarks. "But for middle-class families who are hanging on by their fingernails? His plans will hammer them with a new tax hike of up to $2,000. Mitt Romney wants to give billions in breaks to big corporations -- but he and Paul Ryan would pulverize financial reform, voucher-ize Medicare, and vaporize Obamacare."
Port City Brewing Co. Founder Bill Butcher credited Obama's small business initiative with helping his brewery succeed.
"For these last four years, I've had a president who's on my side," Butcher said, adding that Obama cut small-business taxes and kept middle-class taxes low, "which meant more customers for my product."
There was also a bit of business as Democrats late Wednesday nominated Obama and Vice President Joe Biden as their 2012 White House ticket, with Clinton officially putting Obama's name into contention.
Biden and first lady Michelle Obama, who spoke Tuesday night, watched the proceedings from the stands. Obama arrived in Charlotte on Wednesday. His daughters, Malia and Sasha, will arrive Thursday after school.
Obama and Biden will speak Thursday night speak at Time Warner Cable Arena -- a smaller venue than originally planned. Convention officials announced Wednesday that the speeches would be moved from an outdoor stadium to the covered arena because the rain that's fallen since Tuesday is not expected to improve.
Republicans immediately pounced on the announcement, saying Obama could not fill the stadium, which seats 70,000. The arena seats around 20,000. "The Democrats continue to downgrade convention events due to lack of enthusiasm -- this time they are moving out of Bank of America/Panther stadium. Problems filling the seats?" a Republican National Committee statement said.
Campaign officials said they scrapped the stadium reluctantly but had to put safety first.