Democrats bang the opening gavel Tuesday on their national convention to re-nominate Barack Obama for the presidency, where they will sell him as the wise and humane alternative to Republican challenger Mitt Romney, a pitch they will repeat endlessly to an electorate that is more politically divided than ever.
There may be only one thing all Americans can agree on going into one of the closest elections in recent U.S. history: Deep concern over the slow economic recovery from the Great Recession and meltdown of the U.S. financial sector that began shortly before Obama took office.
First lady Michelle Obama's speech Tuesday night was to highlight the start of the three-day event. Popular former President Bill Clinton, whose 1990s presidency is trumpeted by Democrats as the last great period of economic growth, speaks Wednesday. The president speaks Thursday.
The first lady previewed her remarks Tuesday in a radio interview, indicating she would offer a personal reminder of "the man that he was before he was president."
"The truth is that he has grown so much, but in terms of his core character and value, that has not been changed at all," Mrs. Obama said.
Obama, campaigning in Virginia, predicted he'd get "all misty" watching his wife's speech from the White House with their two daughters.
"Whatever I say here today, it's going to be at best a distant second to the speech you will hear tonight from the star of the Obama family," he said.
Obama and his party will be fighting Romney's argument during the Republican convention last week that the president has failed and will only lead the U.S. deeper into debt and economic despair.
Obama declared Monday that Romney's governing prescriptions are something out of the past.
"Despite all the challenges that we face in this new century, we saw three straight days of an agenda out of the last century. It was a rerun. You might as well have watched it on black-and-white TV," Obama told an audience of auto workers in Ohio. The president is hailed by auto unions for saving General Motors and Chrysler Corp. in 2009. Romney opposed the move, famously writing an editorial headlined "Let Detroit go bankrupt."
Obama argues that Romney brings nothing more to his quest for the White House than reprising the failed plans and policies of former Republican President George W. Bush.
Most Americans still hold Bush responsible for the start of the economic problems afflicting the U.S., but they are split on which candidate is best equipped to restore health to the economy.
Romney contends the president is a nice guy who has failed to make things better. The Republican candidate drew a line under that message in a statement Monday, the Labor Day holiday.
"For far too many Americans, today is another day of worrying when their next paycheck will come," he said.
Romney is keeping a lower profile this week as the Democrats meet. He drove from his vacation home in New Hampshire to Vermont to spend the day preparing for debates with Obama.
Polls show most Americans see Romney, a former governor and private equity veteran, as the better candidate to handle the U.S. economy, while Obama is seen as more likable and better able to understand the problems of ordinary Americans.
Their visions of America's future differ widely.
Obama is pressing hard on his contention that there are vast areas where the government can help fix the economy and put a safety net under hard-hit Americans. He's finally defending the landmark health care overhaul he oversaw in 2010. It was based on a plan instituted by Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts, though the Republican candidate now promises to repeal Obama's vision for the nation.
Obama is calling for higher taxes on Americans making more than $250,000 a year. Romney wants to keep all Bush-era tax cuts in place, with even steeper cuts for high-income earners. Obama argues his plan will help bring down the U.S. debt. Romney says his ideas will do that even better by helping businesses to make more money and pay even more in taxes even though the rate is lowered.
Obama is pressing to keep alive the Medicare program, the government health insurance program for Americans over age 65. Romney — adopting the budget proposals of his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan — favors converting the program to a system where retirees receive a government voucher that they can use in buying insurance on the private market. Obama contends that effectively will end Medicare.
On foreign policy, Romney notably did not mention the war in Afghanistan in his acceptance speech last week. Obama, polls show, is seen as far more capable of handling U.S. foreign policy, and he will no doubt highlight that when he speaks Thursday.
He will recall that he ended the war in Iraq at the end of last year, as promised, and will put an end to the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014.
And he holds a powerful trump card: His decision to order the Navy SEAL raid that killed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Pakistan last year.
Vice President Joe Biden, speaking to workers in Detroit on Monday, summed it up this way: "Osama bin Laden is dead, General Motors is alive.