CHARLOTTE — Democrats finished a strong convention with President Obama’s speech on Thursday, but his address was the culmination of a variety of powerful themes set up by the previous night’s speakers and reinforced throughout.
Taken together, these fronts will define the final stage of the election, providing a guiding light for campaign ads, speeches and surrogates’ talking points in the weeks to come. Each is designed in its own way to appeal to different demographics — from the young and socially liberal to the old and the blue collar — to play up Obama’s strengths, and to exploit Romney’s softest spots — or reveal new ones.
Let’s review the three overarching points that Democrats could not reinforce enough.
• Obama Cares About You, Romney Cares About Balance Sheets
Perhaps even more than policy, what stood out in many of the biggest speeches was the idea that Obama cares — beyond just the term the GOP has used (and Democrats have sought to re-claim) to describe the Affordable Care Act.
Mitt Romney’s awkward, private and sometimes prickly personality has been one of his biggest vulnerabilities since his earliest days in politics. Democrats picked at this scab at every opportunity, portraying him as cold, calculating and at his core incapable of feeling for others because of his wealthy upbringing and wealthier career in business. For contrast, they played up Obama’s own empathy, connecting many of his policies directly to his humble roots.
A Ted Kennedy tribute film showed Romney running as a pro-choice candidate in 1994. It resonated not because it made Romney appear like a closet moderate, but because it made him appear soulless and unprincipled.
This was the glaring subtext of Michelle Obama’s Tuesday speech, arguably the most important and impressive of the week. Without ever mentioning Romney, she reinforced Obama’s character in a way that made it impossible not to compare him against the Republican nominee.
“For Barack, these issues aren’t political,” she said. “They’re personal because Barack knows what it means when a family struggles.”
In another critical speech, Joe Biden grabbed the baton from the first lady and made her implied dig at Romney 100 percent explicit. At one point, he tried to imagine how Romney could oppose the auto rescue despite growing up in Detroit with a father who ran an auto company. “I think he saw it in terms of balance sheets and write-offs.”
The president’s own speech returned to that theme in its soaring ending, as Obama told Americans their stories were the inspiration behind his toughest political fights.
“I’ve shared the pain of families who’ve lost their homes, and the frustration of workers who’ve lost their jobs,” he said. “If the critics are right that I’ve made all my decisions based on polls, then I must not be very good at reading them.”
It wasn’t just the economy where speakers and Obama himself stressed empathy. The Democrats’ renewed enthusiasm for discussing social issues, especially same-sex marriage and abortion, reinforced it as well. Obama cares about women, minorities and immigrants, the message went, even if it was politically risky, because it’s who he is. Romney doesn’t, because he doesn’t care about anyone outside his immediate social circles.
• Economic Patriotism
Every convention needs some red meat, and this was it for the Democrats. The convention featured a number of populist barnburners, each portraying Romney as out of touch with average Americans and actively disdainful of the nation’s values.
Not surprisingly, Romney’s foreign assets advanced the theme. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland zeroed in on the issue for one of the biggest applause lines of the week.
“Mitt Romney has so little economic patriotism that even his money needs a passport,” Strickland said Wednesday. “In Matthew, Chapter 6, Verse 21, the scriptures teach us that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. My friends, any man who aspires to be our president should keep both his treasure and his heart in the United States of America.”
Other speakers sounded similar notes in attacks on outsourcing at Bain Capital, Romney’s refusal to release his tax returns and his proposals to slash tax rates for the wealthy.
“Being asked to pay your fair share isn’t class warfare,” Newark Mayor Cory Booker said Tuesday.”It’s patriotism!”
• Romney’s Untested Foreign Policy
Foreign policy hasn’t figured big in this election — Romney didn’t even feel compelled to mention Afghanistan in his convention address. But Democrats brought it back in a major way at their own gathering, opening a new front attacking Romney and Paul Ryan as dangerously inexperienced.
This angle figured most prominently in the convention’s final night. Sen. John Kerry set the table with a speech that figuratively and literally echoed the attacks lobbed at him at the 2004 Republican convention, accusing Romney of flip-flopping over Afghanistan and Libya.
“Mr. Romney — here’s a little advice,” Kerry said. “Before you debate Barack Obama on foreign policy, you better finish the debate with yourself!”
Biden retold the decision to go after Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and depicted Romney as weak and vacillating.
Finally, Obama pushed Romney on foreign policy as forcefully as anyone.
“My opponent and his running mate … are new to foreign policy,” he said. “But from all that we’ve seen and heard, they want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly.”
In another sharp line, Obama brought up Romney’s much-criticized trip abroad last month, in which he drew condemnations from British leaders for disparaging their Olympic preparation.
“You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally,” Obama said.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.