President Barack Obama takes the podium at the Democratic convention Thursday to accept the party's nomination for a second White House term, his candidacy lifted by the stirring endorsement of Bill Clinton, who warned Americans against returning the reins of government to Republicans who sent the economy crashing into a deep recession.
Arguing on behalf of Obama's efforts to end the disastrous U.S. slide into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Clinton recalled his own presidency — a period of sustained growth — to declare that no president could have repaired in one term all the economic damage inherited from Republicans almost four years ago.
In an election in which the economy is the top issue, Obama received some encouraging news Thursday when the Labor Department reported that the number of people seeking unemployment benefits fell by 12,000 last week, a hopeful signal that the job market may be improving
The symbolism of the popular former president nominating Obama, an unusual turn of events, blunted Republican attempts to use the robust economy of the Clinton years as an argument against Obama. The president has overseen only a modest recovery from the Great Recession, with unemployment still high at 8.3 percent.
Now it remained for Obama, in his acceptance speech that ends the three-day Democratic political festival Thursday night, to seize Clinton's soaring rhetoric to close the sale with undecided voters in one of the closest presidential contests in modern U.S. history. Polls show Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney virtually tied two months before the Nov. 6 election.
Making the round of the morning television talk programs, Obama senior adviser David Plouffe promised the president would give voters "a very clear sense of where he thinks the country needs to go economically, the path we need to take." But he also cautioned that no one should expect Obama to leap out of his convention with a big boost in polls that have long signaled a close race.
"We've always believed that there's very little elasticity in the election," said Plouffe. "You're not going to see big bounces in this election. For the next 61 days, it's going to remain tight as a tick."
Clinton, who took office at the end of a recession in the early 1990s, argued passionately on Obama's behalf.
"President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did," he said. "Listen to me now: 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 speech was vintage Clinton. Famously long-winded, he commanded the stage for about 50 minutes while Obama waited backstage. He delivered insults to Republicans with a folksy grin and his familiar southern drawl. He said the Republican campaign argument is "pretty simple: 'We left him a total mess, he hasn't cleaned it up yet, so fire him and put us back in.'" Clinton accused Republicans of proposing "the same old policies that got us into trouble in the first place" and led to a financial meltdown.
He described Obama as "a man who is cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside." He said the president has "laid the foundation for a more modern, more well-balanced economy."
The Clinton address also sealed the fence-mending with Obama. Relations were poor after an extended, bitter primary campaign in 2008 in which Obama claimed the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton, the wife of the former president and now Obama's loyal secretary of state. She is widely seen as preparing for another presidential run in 2016.
After the speech, Clinton was joined onstage by Obama, who made his first appearance at the convention. The former president bowed, and Obama pulled him into an embrace as thousands of delegates jammed into the convention hall roared their approval. The delegates then made Obama's nomination official in a state-by-state roll call vote.
Democrats were hoping Clinton's speech would mask some negatives that arose Wednesday in their carefully orchestrated nominating convention.
First, citing the chance of bad weather, Democrats abandoned plans for Obama to speak at a large football stadium. Republicans mocked the decision to move Thursday's speech from the 74,000-seat stadium to the 15,000-seat convention arena. "Problems filling the seats?" Republican spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski wrote in a statement.
Second, embarrassed Democrats amended their platform to include references to God and Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Some delegates objected loudly, but Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ruled them outvoted. Campaign officials say Obama personally intervened to make the change.
Republicans had seized on those omissions to make claims that Democrats were out of step with mainstream American ideals.
But Clinton fought back, saying it was the Republicans who were at odds with traditional American fairness.
"If you want a you're-on-your-own, winner-take-all 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 (Vice President) Joe Biden."
Despite the platform dispute, the often-fractious Democrats have generally maintained unity as they try to regenerate the excitement that surrounded Obama's candidacy four years ago, when his inspirational message of hope and change led to his election as America's first black president.
But after almost four years of bitter partisan battles and high unemployment, Obama's support has dropped. While polls show he is more widely liked than Romney on a personal level, Romney is seen as a better bet for improving the economy.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, framed the economic debate against Obama in an email to supporters Wednesday, writing that "no president in modern history has ever asked to be re-elected with this many Americans out of work."
In an interview on Fox News Channel, Romney said: "Anyone who wants him to try again will be making a big mistake."