CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rainy weather predictions are prompting President Barack Obama to accept the Democratic nomination tonight in a covered arena, rather than a vast outdoor stadium as planned. But that does not diminish his opportunity to frame the past four years and the next four for a deeply disappointed electorate.
The stakes with these speeches tend to be higher for the challenger still introducing himself than the universally known incumbent. Polls suggest Republican nominee Mitt Romney received no "bounce" after three days last week in the Tampa Bay Times Forum, and Gallup found only 38 percent of viewers thought his speech was good or excellent.
That gives Obama an opportunity to leave Charlotte with a significant shot of momentum — assuming Friday's jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't immediately extinguish the glow.
We know the president can deliver soaring inspirational speeches, just as he promised "a new politics for a new time" four years ago in Denver.
But Obama no longer represents a vague promise of hope and change. He is an incumbent with a record leading a country as polarized as ever and this is a much harder speech to pull off.
Five things to watch:
1 Blame game. Jeb Bush last week castigated Obama for constantly blaming former President George W. Bush for the economy: "In the fourth year of your presidency, a real leader would have accepted responsibility for his actions, and you haven't done it."
He has a point. Voters understand the tough hand Obama was dealt in January 2009, and the president is sure to point out the precipice America teetered on when he took office. But it's Obama's economy now, and he would do well to sell his own economic programs instead of continuing to blame Bush.
Look for the president to cast Romney's economic agenda as little more than a return to the Bush-Cheney policies that preceded the recession.
2 Owning health care. For much of past two years Democrats have been defensive or downright silent about the president's signature achievement — the Affordable Care Act. On Tuesday, Democrats fully embraced it. Perhaps the most powerful moments of the opening night came from Arizona mother Stacey Lihn, whose toddler Zoe was born with a heart defect.
Zoe was approaching her insurance company's lifetime limit for coverage, until "Obamacare" lifted that cap. The best days of Obama's presidency, Lihn said, came with the passage of the law and the Supreme Court's ruling to uphold it.
"Like so many moms with sick children, I shed tears and I could breathe easier knowing we have a safety net below us to catch us if we fall, or if, God forbid, Zoe needs a heart transplant," she said. "But we're also scared. Gov. Romney, repealing health care reform is something we worry about literally every day."
Polls consistently show a majority of Americans oppose the Affordable Care Act, and many Democrats think it contributed to the Republican wave in 2010. But the politics may be changing as more parts of the law have taken effect — more than 3 million young people on their parents' health coverage, and seniors saving money on prescriptions — and the Democrats are starting to talk about it in personal terms.
Obama could move into offense on the issue tonight, as Republicans have offered no concrete alternatives except repealing the law.
3 The next four years. Neither Romney nor Obama has offered much detail about what they intend to do over the next four years. Romney provided little in Tampa, but Obama needs to link the past four years with the next four tonight in Charlotte.
Count on him to portray stark differences between their approaches to helping middle-class Americans.
Obama must and surely will aggressively tout his record, even as his senior aides last weekend struggled to answer the fundamental question: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
But he needs to do more than that. More than six in 10 Americans today say the nation is heading in the wrong direction. They want to know what's coming, and not just bromides. Yes, Republicans in Congress have rebuffed him at every turn, but Americans still want to know Obama's plan. Calling his efforts a work in progress is not enough. He should spell out his road map for a second term.
4 Afghanistan. Romney uttered not a single word inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum about the 70,000 American troops serving in Afghanistan, let alone how he would handle that increasingly unpopular war. Obama has a lot to tout when it comes to foreign affairs and national security — the Iraq war is over, Osama bin Laden is dead — but Afghanistan is not among them.
What became America's longest war under the Obama administration is not winding down and there is little sign that the troop surge has stabilized the country or significantly weakened the Taliban.
Obama can't avoid talking about it, but he has little to crow about.
5 Fiscal conservatism. No one voted for Obama anticipating the national debt would surpass $16 trillion by the end of his first term, as it did this week. Adding Paul Ryan to the GOP ticket helped Republicans make the case they are willing to make the hard decisions necessary for America's future.
Obama would do well to offer swing voters some of that same reassurance, not just his willingness to raise taxes on the wealthy, but also to make tough spending choices.
Don't expect it to happen, but Obama would certainly focus the debate over the next 60 days if he offered support tonight for the 2010 Bowles-Simpson debt reduction plan.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]