By Tom Cohen, CNN
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (CNN) — President Barack Obama speaks Thursday to the Democratic National Convention that nominated him for re-election, following a forceful political endorsement from former President Bill Clinton.
In a highly anticipated speech to an overflowing Time Warner Cable Arena, Clinton picked apart Republican attacks and explained why Obama can achieve the same economic growth that he did in the 1990s.
He said the man who defeated his wife for the Democratic nomination four years ago offers a better path forward for the country that will promote united values rather than the winner-takes-all mentality of Republicans.
He framed the November election as the opportunity for voters to choose what kind of country they want.
“If you want a winner-take-all, you’re-on-your-own society, you should support the Republican ticket,” Clinton said. “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.”
When Clinton finished his 48-minute address that was much longer than planned, delegates erupted in raucous cheers as Obama made his first appearance at the convention by joining him onstage. The two most recent Democratic presidents embraced and stood arm-in-arm waving to the crowd.
Analysts called the speech vintage Clinton, blending an expert’s command of figures and details with a down-home touch of language and emotion that made him one of the best communicators and politicians of his era.
“If Barack Obama gets re-elected, I think tonight will be a good reason why,” said Republican strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos, adding that Clinton gave Democrats “a master class” on moving to the political center.
Others noted that Clinton did the dirty work of partisan attacks on GOP nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, leaving Obama to tell the nation his vision for a second term in his nationally televised speech that will conclude the convention.
“The most important thing for this election is for Barack Obama to tell us what he’s going to do with the next four years,” said Democratic strategist and CNN contributor Paul Begala.
In his speech, Clinton responded to the attack line by Romney and Ryan that Obama’s policies made things worse for Americans already confronting economic hardship four years ago.
Noting the economic crises Obama inherited upon taking office in January 2009, Clinton declared: “No president — not me, not any of my predecessors — no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.”
The Romney campaign responded to Clinton’s speech by saying it drew a “stark contrast” between the two-term Democratic president’s accomplishments and those of Obama in what it called “the worst economic record of any president in modern history.”
“President Clinton’s speech brought the disappointment and failure of President Obama’s time in office clearly into focus,” said the statement from campaign spokesman Ryan Williams.
Clinton sought to explain the disappointment cited by Republicans, telling the convention that “a lot of Americans are still angry and frustrated by this economy” and had yet to feel any benefits from a sluggish recovery under Obama.
“I had the same thing happen in 1994 and early ’95,” Clinton said, drawing a parallel between his experience and Obama’s presidency. “We could see it was working, that the economy was growing, but people just couldn’t see it yet.”
Clinton takes aim at Republicans
Referring to last week’s GOP convention, Clinton said that “in Tampa, the Republican argument against the president’s re-election was actually pretty simple, pretty snappy. It went something like this: ‘We left him a total mess, he hasn’t finished cleaning it up yet, so fire him and put us back in.'”
“I like the argument for President Obama’s re-election a lot better,” Clinton said, adding the steps in the first term to prevent an economic crash laid the foundation for a more modern and balanced economy in the future.
He took aim at what he called the unwillingness of conservative Republicans to work with Obama and Democrats in any meaningful way to address the nation’s chronic debt and deficit increases and other issues.
Democratic economic policies have proven successful in the past, Clinton said, noting that Democratic administrations created 42 million jobs in their 24 years in power since 1961, compared to 24 million by GOP administrations in the other 28 years.
“It turns out advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and economically sound,” he continued.
Alluding to the rough primary campaign in 2008 when Obama triumphed over Clinton’s wife, Hillary, for the Democratic nomination, the former president said Obama showed his willingness to work with anyone by appointing her as his secretary of state and also including Republicans in his Cabinet as secretaries of defense and transportation.
Clinton also listed Obama’s achievements, focusing in particular on the 2010 health care reform law that he said has lowered health care costs and provided benefits for consumers such as allowing parents to keep children up to age 26 on family policies and preventing insurers from denying coverage for children due to pre-existing conditions.
“We’re better off because President Obama fought for health care reform,” Clinton declared, ‘You bet we are.”
At the same time, Clinton criticized Republican proposals to overhaul the Medicare and Medicaid government health care programs for senior citizens, the poor and disabled.
“If that happens, I don’t know what those families are going to do,” he said, shouting: “We can’t let that happen.”
Clinton also derided Republican deficit reduction plans, saying “the numbers don’t add up” because of planned tax cuts without any new revenue sources. The result will be widespread spending cuts that hurt the middle class and other vulnerable segments of society.
“Don’t you ever forget when you hear them talking about this that Republican economic policy quadrupled the debt in the 12 years before I took office and doubled the debt in the eight years after I left because it defied arithmetic,” he said.
Clinton took particular aim at Ryan, the architect of the conservative House Republican budget that included many of the proposals he criticized, accusing him of lying about issues such as the health care law and the Obama administration’s recent move to give states more flexibility in administering federally funded welfare programs. The issues have been major GOP focuses in attack ads and speeches against Obama.
Self-inflicted wounds for Democrats
The Clinton speech concluded a day of some self-inflicted wounds for Democrats. First, campaign organizers announced they were moving Obama’s address from an outdoor stadium to the smaller Time Warner Cable Arena because of possible thunderstorms.
Later, the Wednesday session started with some dissension when delegates approved a change in the party platform to reinstate language recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The original platform approved on Tuesday omitted that reference, which had been part of the 2008 platform, and Republicans quickly criticized it as a snub to Israel.
Another change restored the word “God” to the platform after the 2012 version omitted it, though it included language on faith as part of American society. The language referring to God-given rights was the same as in the 2008 platform.
It took three voice votes, with supporters and opponents of the changes strongly expressing their preference, before a clearly flummoxed Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared himself satisfied that a two-thirds majority backed the new language despite groans of dissatisfaction from some delegates.
The delegates burst into applause minutes later when Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas led them in the Pledge of Allegiance.
A senior Democratic source told CNN that Obama intervened to change the platform language, saying the president “didn’t want there to be any confusion about his unshakeable commitment to the security of … Israel.” In addition, Democratic sources said Obama also asked aloud why the word “God” had been dropped.
Begala, who has served in Democratic administrations, called the platform flap “embarrassing, stupid” and “an unforced error by my party.” Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary in the George W. Bush administration who also is a CNN contributor, said the issue reflected a split among Democrats over support for Israel.
“The platform is being amended to maintain consistency with the personal views expressed by the president and in the Democratic Party platform in 2008,” said a statement by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who heads the Democratic National Committee. “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel. The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.”
Other Democratic leaders clearly wanted to put the flap behind them.
“We repaired this platform. It shouldn’t be an issue anymore,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York told CNN, conceding: “It shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”
On the venue change for Thursday’s speech, Obama campaign officials said they were disappointed but called it a public safety issue. They are encouraging those scheduled to attend at the stadium to instead organize block parties in their neighborhoods.
Despite the change, campaign officials were enthusiastic about how the convention began Tuesday, with one senior official calling the program that featured powerful and at times emotional speeches by first lady Michelle Obama and others a “fantastic, high energy night.”
CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen agreed that the opening night couldn’t have gone much better, adding: “If they have two more nights like this, they could possibly break this race open.” After the platform imbroglio Wednesday, though, Gergen noted Democrats started the session “with a stumble.”
Romney keeps up attack
Cheering delegates heard plentiful criticism of Romney as Democrats responded to last week’s GOP convention, which sought to make the November vote a referendum on Obama’s presidency amid high unemployment, sluggish economic growth and mounting federal deficits and debt.
Romney kept up the attack Wednesday, telling reporters that the nation’s $16 trillion debt level reached this week and an increase in food stamp recipients during Obama’s presidency showed the failure of his policies.
“There is just no way to square those numbers with the idea that America is doing better, because it’s not,” Romney said during a break from debate preparations in New Hampshire.
Convention speeches Wednesday accused Romney and Ryan of being out of touch and politically divisive at a time requiring national unity.
Seeking to further strengthen Obama’s advantage with women, Hispanic Americans and young voters, the Democratic speakers hailed the president for promoting health care reforms, supporting gay marriage and ending deportations of some young illegal immigrants.
“Democrats trust the judgment of women. We reject the Republican assault on women’s reproductive health,” said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. “It’s just plain wrong. When you go to the polls, vote for women’s rights. Vote for President Obama.”
Elizabeth Warren, the consumer advocate running for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, complained that people today “feel like the system is rigged against them.”
“They’re right, the system is rigged,” Warren said to cheers, adding that Obama was fighting to “level that playing field.”
Sister Simone Campbell, a Catholic nun challenging the Republican budget proposal by Ryan, said the austere plan would harm the work being done to alleviate suffering by the sick and impoverished. She called the Ryan plan an “immoral budget … that does not reflect our nation’s values.”
Another speaker told how he lost his job in 1994 at the Ampad paper plant taken over by Romney’s private equity firm, Bain Capital.
“I don’t think Mitt Romney is a bad man. I don’t fault him for the fact some companies win,” Randy Johnson said. “What I fault him for is making money without a moral compass. I fault him for putting profits before people like me. But that’s just Romney economics. … Mitt Romney will stick it to working people. Barack Obama is sticking up for working people. It’s as simple as that.”
Romney’s campaign is focused on the question of whether Obama has made life better for Americans, arguing that continued economic woes show that White House policies have failed to deliver a recovery from the recession that began during the previous Republican administration.
“We are going to hear a lot of things in Charlotte, but we are not going to hear a convincing argument that we are better off than we were four years ago,” Ryan told supporters in Adel, Iowa, on Wednesday.
Struggle to define election
The back-and-forth between the campaigns is part of their struggle to define the election in the minds of voters. Republicans want it to be about Obama’s presidency, while Democrats seek a choice between differing political ideologies on the size and role of government.
In particular, Republicans seek to shrink the size of government and end chronic federal deficits and rising national debt through reducing spending, reforming entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and slashing taxes on businesses and many individuals as a spur for economic growth.
Obama and Democrats argue that a deficit reduction plan also needs additional revenue, and they propose allowing tax rates on income of more than $250,000 for families and $200,000 for individuals to return to the higher levels of the 1990s.
Republicans oppose any kind of tax increase, and the impasse over that issue has been the main impediment to a comprehensive deficit reduction agreement during Obama’s first term.
The race overall is very tight, with a new poll Tuesday showing Romney received little bounce from last week’s convention intended to introduce him to voters just now turning their attention to the presidential race.
The CNN/ORC International Poll also indicates that less than 40% of registered voters said the GOP convention made them more likely to vote for Romney. At the same time, Romney got a slight bump in his favorable rating, and on being in touch with the middle class and women, although he still trails Obama on those two questions.
CNN’s previous poll, released as the Republican convention got under way, indicated that 49% of likely voters backed Obama, with 47% supporting Romney, a statistical tie. In the new survey, which was conducted after the GOP convention, both the president and Romney are at 48%.
CNN’s Jessica Yellin, Dana Bash, Ashley Killough, Kevin Liptak, Sarah Aarthun, Halimah Abdullah, Paul Steinhauser, Adam Aigner-Treworgy, Brianna Keilar and Peter Hamby contributed to this report.