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At Dem Convention, Obama Seeks to Counter GOP Doom-and-Gloom

Convention speeches can attract tens of millions of viewers, an audience on par perhaps only with a State of the Union address

President Barack Obama speaks to law enforcement officers from around the country at the Advancing 21st Century Policing Briefing in the South Court Auditorium of the White House complex in Washington, photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
1 year ago

And then the skies cleared and the sun shone. Or so it may seem this week, as Democrats stage a convention aimed squarely at countering the dark-and-stormy vision presented by Republicans.

Where GOP nominee Donald Trump described “death, destruction, terrorism and weakness” at his convention last week, Democrats will point to stability, growth and hope. Trump vowed to restore safety, Democrats will promise to deepen progress.

No one besides Hillary Clinton has more hanging on that rosier report than its chief messenger: President Barack Obama.

The country Obama will describe in his speech Wednesday night is his United States — the fruit of seven-plus years of his presidency. And the speech is one of his last major chances to defend his leadership in front of a mass audience before he leaves his legacy to his successor and historians.

But Obama’s challenge couldn’t be more difficult — coming amid a summer of unsettling violence and outbursts of racial tension. Both he and his Democratic allies will spend the week walking a fine line between their aspirational vision and the turmoil of recent weeks.

The president’s answer has been to plead for perspective and contest Republicans’ facts. He’s argued that crime and immigration rates are down and the threat of terrorism much diminished since the Sept. 11 attacks. The day after Trump’s doom-and-gloom acceptance speech, Obama said, people “walked outside and birds were chirping and the sun was out.”

The White House says the president will expand on that case at the convention. Obama will counter Trump’s blitz of statistics with a litany of his own. He’ll also reprise his role as chief character witness for Clinton, hoping to use his relatively high popularity marks to vouch for a candidate many U.S. citizens distrust.

Yet there’s a reason Trump’s campaign has placed his grimmer message — that the nation is badly off-track — front and center.

Many U.S. citizens still struggle with low wages, even though joblessness has fallen sharply and the economy has improved since Obama took over during a recession. Each day seems to bring another instance of bloodshed or racial tension in a U.S. community. And overseas, a series of large and deadly attacks, some linked to Islamic State sympathizers, have rattled the globe.

Just 19 percent of U.S. citizens said the country is heading in the right direction in an AP-GfK poll this month, a significant decrease from the 39 percent who felt that way a year and a half earlier. Almost 4 in 5 voters felt the country was moving in the wrong direction this month, compared to 3 in 5 in early 2015.

“A lot of people are going to roll their eyes when President Obama makes the case that the country is on the right track,” said Ryan Williams, who worked for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s bid this year. “He is a flawed messenger to make the case that that things will get better if we stay the course with Hillary Clinton.”

Obama’s speech comes at a time of turbulence for the Democratic Party, whose chairwoman stepped down Sunday under pressure over hacked emails. The chaos ups the ante as Obama tries to portray Democrats as unified and ready to take on Trump.

Convention speeches can attract tens of millions of viewers, an audience on par perhaps only with a State of the Union address. Obama began drafting his speech a few weeks ago and was still tweaking it over the weekend.

For Obama, the speech may come with a touch of nostalgia. His first turn in the national spotlight came at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. His call for moving past racial and political divisions became his calling card. But last week at the Republican convention in Cleveland, it was mocked.

“What happened to ‘there’s no black America, there’s no white America, there is just America.’ What happened to it?” asked a fiery former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Obama increasingly has asked U.S. citizens to take the long view — the very long view. Aides say he’s mindful that the swirl of social media often amplifies the negative and intensifies the perception of crises.

He often asks audiences, especially young people, to imagine a better time they could inhabit, a pop quiz of sorts that inevitably evokes comparisons to the difficult lives experienced by medieval serfs or Egyptian slaves.

“It is worth reminding ourselves of how lucky we are to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history,” Obama said last week.

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