CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (CNN) — President Barack Obama offers a better path forward for the country that will promote united values rather than the winner-takes-all mentality of Republicans, former President Bill Clinton told the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night.
In a highly anticipated speech that formally nominated Obama for a second term, the two-term Democratic president framed the November election as a choice by voters of 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.”
With Obama inside the packed Times Warner Cable Arena in his first appearance at the convention that started Tuesday, Clinton responded to the attack line by Republican nominee Mitt Romney that Obama’s policies made things worse. Noting the economic crises Obama inherited on taking office in January 2009, Clinton declared to raucous cheers: “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.”
He noted that “a lot of Americans are still angry and frustrated by this economy” adding that “too many people do not feel it yet.”
“I had the same thing happen in early ’94 and ’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.”
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. “He inherited a deeply damaged economy, put a floor under the crash, began the long hard road to recovery, and laid the foundation for a more modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses, and lots of new wealth for the innovators.”
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,” Clinton continued.
Alluding to the rough primary campaign in 2008 when Obama defeated 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. “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.
The Clinton speech concluded a day of some self-inflicted wounds for Democrats. First, campaign organizers announced they were moving Obama’s address concluding the convention Thursday 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.
CNN political contributor Paul 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.”
Cheering delegates heard plentiful criticism of Romney as Democrats responded to last week’s GOP convention, which sought to frame the November vote as 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.
Facing a tight race and unrelenting GOP attacks that Obama has made things worse while in office, Democratic organizers planned a convention that emphasizes the tough decisions the president has made so far and the additional steps needed to bolster the middle class.
Speeches on Tuesday and Wednesday lambasted Romney and Republicans, accusing them 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 Romney’s running mate, conservative House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, 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.”
On Tuesday, Michelle Obama offered a personal perspective on why her husband should be re-elected, telling the convention that the same values she fell in love with guide him each day in the White House.
“In the end, for Barack, these issues aren’t political, they’re personal,” she said. “Barack knows the American dream because he’s lived it, and he wants everyone, everyone in this country to have the same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love.”
Earlier, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recalled the litany of crises that greeted the Obama administration when it assumed office in January 2009: a Wall Street meltdown, economic recession, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a collapsing auto industry.
“Each crisis was so deep, and so dangerous, any one of them would have defined another presidency,” said Emanuel, who was Obama’s chief of staff at the time. “We faced a once-in-a-generation moment in American history, and fortunately, we have a once-in-a-generation president.”
On Wednesday, Emanuel said he was giving up his role in Obama’s campaign to focus on fund-raising in the face of the advantage gained so far by Romney and Republicans, including super-PACs supporting him.
The Romney campaign said no amount of rhetoric could mask what spokeswoman Andrea Saul called Obama’s “record of disappointment and failure.”
“On the first night of President Obama’s convention, not a single speaker uttered the words ‘Americans are better off than they were four years ago,’” Saul said in a statement, adding that “the American people will hold President Obama accountable for his record.”
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.
The “are you better off” strategy was famously employed in 1980 by Ronald Reagan, who asked voters that question when running against the incumbent Carter at a time of national economic woes. Reagan went on to win, and the Romney campaign has repeatedly invoked his name this year while seeking to link Obama and Carter as failed leaders
The Romney campaign continued that strategy Wednesday with an appearance by Ryan in Iowa.
“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,” he told told supporters in Adel.
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%.
“The Republican convention had at best a mild effect on the presidential race, and from a statistical viewpoint, no effect at all,” said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
CNN’s Jessica Yellin, Dana Bash, Ashley Killough, Kevin Liptak, Sarah Aarthun, Halimah Abdullah, Paul Steinhauser, Adam Aigner-Treworgy and Peter Hamby contributed to this report.