Democrats look to re-energize base at convention

Opening their convention in Charlotte, N.C., today, Democrats hope to regenerate the enthusiasm that lifted Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008.

Hope to strengthen support for Barack Obama ahead of November's presidential election

Joe Esmonde says it’s unrealistic to think this year’s party convention can match the frenzied enthusiasm that erupted four years ago when Barack Obama officially became the party’s presidential nominee.

"It was like a meteor — there was just a buzz," Esmonde, a Democratic Party delegate from Portland, Ore., told CBC News on Monday, a day before the convention was set to kick off in Charlotte, N.C. "Everybody was so optimistic, so happy," during the convention in Denver, Colo.

But after a term of governing, a fragile economy and facing expectations no president could have possibly met, Esmonde said if the convention gets even "85 per cent of the magic back it will be great."

"That was historic. You’re not going to recreate that, obviously," said Nancy Stenberg, a delegate from Southwick, Mass. "We’ve already elected the first African-American  president, so you’re not going to recreate that.

"Four years ago it was a completely different message, different times, so I think the enthusiasm is the same level , we’re just focused on different things. We’re involved in a message of moving forward."

A week after the Republicans held their convention in Tampa, Fla., anointing Mitt Romney to lead the charge against the president, the Democrats kick off their own today, with hopes of re-energizing a base whose support for the president may have softened over the years.

"I think the hype of Obama has calmed down, but I think this convention is going to bring it to the forefront again," said Cindy Weir, a delegate from Michigan. "I believe this convention will kick off the excitement."

Late Monday afternoon, last-minute preparations were being made at the Time Warner Cable arena. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi made an appearance on stage as did the president's wife, Michelle Obama, surveying the area where she is set to address the delegates today.

Bill Clinton to speak

Former president Bill Clinton will make the case for Obama on Wednesday before the venue switches the next day to the larger Bank of America stadium, where up to 75,000 may come to listen to the president's acceptance speech.

But the road to Charlotte has not been without controversy.

Obama’s shocking yet slim victory in North Carolina during 2008 may have made it a perfect place for Democrats to restake their territory. However, some Democrats were outraged and started a petition to move the convention after the state recently voted to support a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage.

Labour unions were already rankled because North Carolina is one of the least unionized states — the hotels, for example, aren’t unionized — and the state has right-to-work laws. This year, the AFL-CIO, which is usually a significant financial contributor, seemed to snub the convention.

But James Andrews, president of the North Carolina chapter of the powerful union, dismissed the controversy

"When the announcement came out I think everyone expected it to be in another state other than North Carolina — in particular one with a larger union membership," Andrews told CBC News.

"But that ship has already sailed. Folks are excited about this convention; excited about the opportunity to renominate this president; excited about the opportunity to re-energize our members so they can go out in Nov. 6 and vote for this president."

With the economy the most important issue for most voters and unemployment at 8.3 per cent, Obama may face challenges in persuading the electorate to give him four more years. 

"People are struggling and when they do ask that famous question: 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago,' for the vast majority of people the answer is 'no,'" said Dorie Cranshaw, a delegate from Dallas.

"The question though is why and …who’s going to help us go forward."

Joe Fitzgibbon, from Seattle, Wash., says Democrats should get excited about what U.S. President Barack Obama has accomplished. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

Cranshaw, who praised Obama for his leadership, still wished he had been more forthright in pushing some issues, including greater support for natural gas and approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to the United States from Canada.

"There were missed opportunities," she said.

Obama also may no longer be able count on motivating his base with the searing rhetoric that drew praise from even some of his harshest critics.

"The rhetorical magic has played itself, but I’d rather we get excited about the president for what he’s gotten done and what he’s going to get done," said Joe Fitzgibbon, a member of the rules committee for Seattle.

"It’s a little different excitement. In 2008, it was because he was a fresh face, he had this rhetorical style. And today I think it’s less about the myth and more about the reality of the things that he’s gotten done, which I think is better," Fitzgibbon said.

Plenty of enthusiasm

Fitzgibbon said he still has encountered a lot of enthusiasm for Obama, and a lot who are grateful for what they say he has accomplished, including his health-care bill and his battle against the recession.

But "none of us feel like everything had gone the way we hoped and that we got everything we wanted," he said, adding that Obama needs to do more on climate change.

"Things had been so bad under [former president George W.] Bush I think we were just ready for any kind of change and we were just so excited about that, we were just expecting the moon. But given the really tough place the country was in four years ago, I think we're heading in the right direction."

Mike Zickar, a delegate of Toledo, Ohio, said the convention is an opportunity to remind voters what has been accomplished in the last four years.

" I think in '08 we were so motivated to get rid of any remnants of he Bush administration — motivated by love and hatred. The hatred isn’t there anymore, we’ve been beaten up in the news and hearing bad news over and over again and the convention for me is a time to get excited again." 


  • An earlier version of this story referred incorrectly to a proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from Canada to the U.S. The proposed project is the Keystone XL pipeline.
    Sep 04, 2012 10:55 AM ET