CHARLOTTE, N.C. - President Barack Obama begins the final sprint to Election Day with a three-pronged strategy: Persuade Americans that the economy is on the mend because of his policies; portray himself as the defender of the middle class, and define Republican challenger Mitt Romney as an unpalatable alternative.
"Know this, America: Our problems can be solved," Obama told the Democratic National Convention Thursday in accepting his party's nomination for a second term. "Our challenges can be met. The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place. and I'm asking you to choose that future." As he resumes campaigning in a handful of battleground states that will probably decide the election, Obama will make the same case for an activist federal government that Democrats have made since the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt used federal power and money to create a societal safety net known as the New Deal. And, like other Democrats before him, including former President Bill Clinton in his stirring speech to the convention Wednesday, Obama depicted the Republicans as heartless defenders of the rich and powerful.
"This is what the election comes down to," Obama said. "Over and over, we've been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way, that since government can't do everything, it should do almost nothing." Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are expected to hammer away at these themes in trips to Florida, Iowa, and New Hampshire through Sunday.
For his part, Romney will visit New Hampshire, Iowa and Virginia, and his vice presidential running mate Paul Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin, will visit Nevada. The paltry 96,000 jobs added to the economy in August will weigh heavy on the Democratic ticket as they campaign around the country.
Romney hit back by attacking Obama as a failure who hasn't been able to substantially reduce unemployment and who has run up an astronomical federal debt and directed the government to over-reach in many areas of national life, from health care to regulating business. Romney's refrain, which will be repeated across the country with tens of millions of dollars in TV advertising, is, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" And for many Americans, the answer is no. Obama's goal is to persuade voters that Romney would make things worse. So far, the constant back-and-forth between Obama and Romney hasn't changed the dynamic of the race, which is a statistical tie in poll after poll. In the latest Gallup survey, 47 percent of Americans favored Obama and 46 percent preferred Romney. And the latest surveys don't show much "bounce" or increased support for either candidate after their nominating conventions over the past two weeks, when the Democrats met in Charlotte and the Republicans met in Tampa. The next potential game-changers will be three presidential debates in which Obama and Romney will go head to head in October.
Overall, it's been a difficult four years for Obama. Promising hope and change, he was elected the nation's first African-American president in November 2008. But he took office amid an economic collapse that he calls the "Great Recession," and, asking for patience, he admitted Thursday night that the country still has a long way to go to fully recover. Obama tried to update his "hope and change" argument from 2008. He said Americans still believe in those goals, even though circumstances require him to scale back his agenda, which includes creating a million new manufacturing jobs by the end of 2016, and reducing the deficit by more than $4 trillion over the next decade.
One of Obama's big problems in seeking re-election is money. His aides were taken aback this week when it became clear that Romney had raised the staggering total of $100 million in August alone. A year ago, Democrats thought that Obama and his allies would have the fundraising edge. No more.
Bill Burton, co-founder of a pro-Obama political action committee, told me that he was spending convention week soliciting contributions from Democratic donors. Another sign that the Obama campaign is worried about money is that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former White House chief of staff, will now shift his attention from overall strategy to raising funds for the president's re-election.
And a half-hour before former President Bill Clinton's convention speech Wednesday night, the Obama campaign sent a message labeled "Absolutely urgent" to supporters and reporters. It was a fundraising appeal from Clinton that said, "Don't take anything for granted. Don't think you can wait because your neighbor is stepping up, or that someone else will pick up the slack. Don't think that you can wait until the debates, or until after these conventions. When you look at what the other side is spending--and where they want to take this country--none of us can afford to think that way."
Even though the speeches this week by Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama were widely considered successes, the rest of the Democratic convention had its share of embarrassments and glitches. One was a furor over the fact that the party platform initially didn't include a reference to God and didn't recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Told about the omissions, Obama intervened and ordered that the platform be changed, his aides said. But the resulting fuss gave Republicans an opening to criticize the Democrats for incompetence and straying from the fundamental American values of faith and loyalty.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Wahington, on usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency' column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Faceook and Twitter.