By DAVID ESPO and ROBERT FURLOW
His re-election in doubt, President Barack Obama acknowledged slow progress toward solving the nation’s economic woes Thursday night but declared in a Democratic National Convention speech, “Our problems can be solved, our challenges can be met.”
His speech was the final act of his national convention, and the opening salvo of a two-month drive toward Election Day in his race against Republican rival Mitt Romney. The contest is close for the White House in a dreary season of economic struggle for millions.
With unemployment at 8.3 percent, Obama said the task of recovering from the economic disaster of 2008 is exceeded in American history only by the challenge Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced when he took office in the Great Depression in 1933.
In an appeal to independent voters who might be considering a vote for Romney, he added that those who carry on Roosevelt’s legacy “should remember that not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington.”
The convention’s final night also included a nomination acceptance speech from Vice President Joe Biden, whose appeal to blue collar voters rivals or even exceeds Obama’s own.
The president was to be introduced by first lady Michelle Obama, who also spoke on the convention’s opening night as the Democrats sought to capitalize on her popularity.
Delegates who packed into their convention hall were serenaded by singer James Taylor and rocked by R&B blues artist Mary J. Blige as they awaited Obama’s speech.
Actress Eva Longoria was on the program, as well. “No empty chairs,” she said, a reference to actor Clint Eastwood’s mocking reference to Obama at Romney’s Republican National Convention last week in Florida.
As part of the excerpts released in advance, Obama’s campaign said he would set a goal of creating one million new manufacturing jobs by the end of 2016 and push for more aggressive steps to reduce American dependence on foreign oil.
He also called for curtailing the growth of college costs by half over the next 10 years. According to the Department of Education, the price of undergraduate tuition and room and board at public institutions rose by 42 percent in the decade that ended in 2010; the increase at private not-for-profit institutions was 31 percent.
Still, he said, “The truth is it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over a decade.”
The campaign focus was shifting quickly _ to politically sensitive monthly unemployment figures due out Friday morning and the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 in Denver. Wall Street hit a four-year high a few hours before Obama’s speech after the European Central Bank laid out a concrete plan to support the region’s struggling countries.
Convention planners shoehorned a few more seats into the Time Warner Cable Arena for Obama’s remarks, pushing capacity to about 15,000. Even so, the decision to scrap plans to hold the night’s session in a 74-000-seat football stadium meant a far smaller crowd than the president’s campaign hoped would hear him speak and present an enthusiastic show of support on television.
Officials blamed the switch on weather concerns, and there was heavy rain at mid-afternoon. Perhaps typical of delegates and their feelings, Grifynn Clay of Snohomish, Wash., said, “I would’ve enjoyed the stadium, but if it was pouring I would not want to be in there for the six hours of speeches.”
The economy is by far the dominant issue in the campaign, and the differences between Obama and his challenger could hardly be more pronounced.
Romney wants to extend all tax cuts that are due to expire on Dec. 31 with an additional 20 percent reduction in rates across the board, arguing that job growth would result. He also favors deep cuts in domestic programs ranging from education to parks, repeal of the health care legislation that Obama pushed through Congress and landmark changes in Medicare, the program that provides health care to seniors.
Obama wants to renew the tax cuts except on incomes higher than $250,000, saying that millionaires should contribute to an overall attack on federal deficits. He also criticizes the spending cuts Romney advocates, saying they would fall unfairly on the poor, lower-income college students and others. He argues that Republicans would “end Medicare as we know it” and saddle seniors with ever-rising costs.
After two weeks of back-to-back conventions, the impact on the race remained to be determined.
You’re not going to see big bounces in this election,” said David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser. “For the next 61 days, it’s going to remain tight as a tick.”
Romney wrapped up several days of debate rehearsals with close aides in Vermont and is expected to resume full-time campaigning in the next day or two.
In a brief stop to talk with veterans on Thursday, he defended his decision to omit mention of the war in Afghanistan when he delivered his acceptance speech last week at the Republican National Convention. He noted he had spoken to the American Legion only one day before.
He also said he had no plans to watch Obama on television.
It will likely be a week or more before the two campaigns can fully digest post-convention polls and adjust their strategies for the fall.
Based on the volume of campaign appearances to date and the hundreds of millions of dollars spent already on television advertising, the election appears likely to be decided in a small number of battleground states. The list includes New Hampshire, Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada and Iowa, as well as Florida and North Carolina, the states where first Republicans and then Democrats held their conventions. Those states hold 100 electoral votes among them, out of 270 needed to win the White House.
Money has become an ever-present concern for the Democrats, an irony given the overwhelming advantage Obama held over Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in the 2008 campaign.
This time, Romney is outpacing him, and independent groups seeking the Republican’s election are pouring tens of millions of dollars into television advertising, far exceeding what Obama’s supporters can afford.
Officials disclosed that former President Bill Clinton, who made a forceful convention speech advocating Obama’s re-election on Wednesday night, would campaign aggressively for the Democratic ticket this fall. His first appearance is set for Florida next week.
On Obama’s conference call to supporters who were cut out of seeing Thursday night’s session, Obama exhorted them to continue their work on voter registration and other pre-election activity.
He said North Carolina is “Exhibit A of the unbelievable work that’s being done at the grassroots level. You guys are blowing it up when it comes to registering voters.”
Official figures show about 30,000 Democrats have been registered to vote in the state since 2008, but some party leaders said recent canvassing had pushed the actual figure far higher.
On the call, the president commiserated with those who would no longer be able to see him speak.
A few hours later, the skies opened up with a torrential downpour.
Romney’s campaign released its first new television ad since the convention season began.
It shows Clinton sharply questioning Obama’s credibility on the Iraq War in 2008, saying “Give me a break, this whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” Obama was running against Hillary Rodham Clinton at the time for the Democratic nomination.
Associated Press writers Leo Buckle, Ben Feller, Ken Thomas, Matt Michaels and Jim Kuhnhenn in Charlotte, Calvin Woodward, Jennifer Agiesta, Jack Gillum and Josh Lederman in Washington, Kasie Hunt in Vermont and Thomas Beaumont and Steve Peoples in Iowa contributed to this report.