US Democrats kick off national convention Michelle Obama DNC Speech Electrifies Crowd

Democrats kick off national convention Michelle Obama DNC Speech Electrifies CrowdFirst Lady Michelle Obama makes personal case for her husband’s re-election on first night of party gathering watch

Michelle Obama’s message: President Barack Obama is just like you.

“Barack knows the American Dream because he’s lived it,” the first lady told the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday in an address intended to reassure voters that her husband share their values – hard work, perseverance and optimism – while also drawing a contrast between him and Mitt Romney.

Mrs. Obama never mentioned the president’s Republican challenger, who grew up in a world of privilege and wealth.

But the point was clear as she weaved a tapestry of their early years together, when money was tight and times were tough, when they were “so in love, and so in debt.” She reminisced about the man who now occupies the Oval Office pulling his favorite coffee table out of the trash and wearing dress shoes that were a size too small. And she told stories about a president who still takes time to eat dinner with his daughters nearly every night, answering their questions about the news and strategizing about middle-school friendships.

With a mix of personal anecdotes and policy talk, Mrs. Obama’s speech was by far her most political yet.

“Today, after so many struggles and triumphs and moments that have tested my husband in ways I never could have imagined, I have seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are – it reveals who you are,” she said.

To that send, the first lady painted a portrait of a leader who knows first-hand the struggles of everyday Americans, who listens to them as president, and who pushes an agenda with their interests in mind.

“That’s the man I see in those quiet moments late at night, hunched over his desk, poring over the letters people have sent him,” she said. “I see the concern in his eyes … and I hear the determination in his voice as he tells me, `You won’t believe what these folks are going through, Michelle . it’s not right. We’ve got to keep working to fix this. We’ve got so much more to do.””

She added: “I see how that’s what drives Barack Obama every single day.”

With such stories, the first lady sought to counter Republicans trying to paint Obama as something other than a typical American, and implied that it was Romney who couldn’t relate to people trying to get by in tough economic times.

To be sure, neither Romney nor Obama fits the bill of the average, working-class American struggling with credit card debt and mortgage payments. Both are millionaires who live a privileged life few Americans will ever experience.

But each candidate is trying to convince Americans that they’re best-suited to run an economy hampered by sluggish growth and high unemployment. Polls show Romney leading on who voters say would best to manage the economy, but Obama with the advantage on who voters believe understands their economic challenges better.

As she stood in the center of the convention’s blue-carpeted stage, Mrs. Obama’s words went straight to the core of the contrast Democrats are trying to draw between Obama and Romney. They say the president is pushing policies to boost the middle class, while Romney wants to protect the wealthy and hope their success trickles down.

Once a reluctant political spouse, Mrs. Obama delved more deeply into the details of her husband’s policies than she has in her previous speeches. She promoted his health care overhaul, push for tax cuts for middle income earners and the auto bailout. And she took on the economy, her husband’s biggest political liability, arguing that he “brought our economy back from the brink of collapse to creating jobs again.”

“In the end, for Barack, these issues aren’t political. They’re personal,” she said.

The president watched Mrs. Obama’s speech from the White House along with the couple’s two young daughters.

“I’m going to try to not let them see their daddy cry because when Michelle starts talking, I start getting all misty,” Obama said at rally earlier Tuesday in Norfolk, Va.

Mrs. Obama will likely have one more turn in the convention spotlight later this week. She is expected to introduce her husband Thursday night when he accepts the Democratic nomination before a crowd of up to 74,000 and a television audience of millions across the country.

The Obamas’ daughters, Malia and Sasha, are also expected to join them on stage during the convention’s closing night, leaving voters with fresh images of the photogenic family.

While at the three-day convention, Mrs. Obama will also focus on shoring up support for her husband among key constituencies. She plans to speak to the party’s African-American, Hispanic and women’s caucuses and address a gay and lesbian luncheon. Along with the vice president’s wife, Jill Biden, the first lady will also participate in an armed services event Thursday and put together care packages for U.S. troops serving overseas.

The first lady took the stage Tuesday as the most popular figure in this year’s presidential campaign. She earns higher favorability ratings than her husband, his Republican rival, the other contender for first lady, or either candidate for the vice presidency, according to the latest Associated Press-GfK poll.

In the poll, conducted before the Republican convention began, 64 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of Mrs. Obama. President Obama came in at 53 percent favorable.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro’s keynote speech to the Democratic convention was a spicy blend of immigrant dreams and partisan bite.

The 37-year old Castro, a rising star in Texas but little known on the national stage, roused the packed audience at the Time Warner Center with a pointed message to voters: “Mitt Romney, quite simply, doesn’t get it.”

Castro’s tale was in part standard political fare for a party seeking to solidify its standing among immigrant voters.

Castro was raised by a single mother and a grandmother who both emigrated from Mexico, Castro and his identical twin brother Joaquin achieved happiness and success through hard work and a good education made possible by the American dream. But from there, Castro pivoted to an assault on Republican Mitt Romney, whose policies Castro said would “dismantle” the middle class if elected.

“We know that in our free market economy some will prosper more than others. What we don’t accept is the idea that some folks won’t even get a chance,” Castro said. “And the thing is, Mitt Romney and the Republican party are perfectly comfortable with that America.”

He added, “I don’t think Gov. Romney meant any harm. I think he’s a good guy. He just has no idea how good he’s had it,” – a pointed jab at Romney’s considerable wealth.

Castro also taunted Romney for his shifting positions on issues like abortion rights, gay marriage and his own push for universal health care as governor of Massachusetts.

“Gov. Romney has undergone an extreme makeover, and it isn’t pretty,” Castro said.

The Romney campaign shot back at Castro’s claim the GOP presidential nominee is insensitive to the middle class.

“Middle class families understand that they are not better off than they were four years ago because President Obama’s liberal policies have failed to turn around the economy,” spokesman Ryan Williams said.

Until now, Castro has enjoyed a spate of favorable media profiles, a landslide re-election last year and speculation about whether he’ll become the governor of Texas or even the country’s first Hispanic president. His well-received turn at the convention all but guarantees more of such chatter.

Castro was introduced onstage his brother Joaquin, a Texas state legislator from San Antonio now poised to win election to Congress in November

“My family’s story isn’t special. What’s special is the America that makes our story possible,” Julian Castro said. “Ours is a nation like no other, a place where great journeys can be made in a single generation. No matter who you are or where you come from, the path is always forward.”

When he arrived at a forum at the White House, Barack Obama mistook Julián Castro – the mayor of San Antonio, Texas and the keynote speaker at this week’s Democratic National Convention (DNC) – for a member of his staff.

“I thought he was an intern,” the president said.

Obama was, of course, joking. “I know who you are,” he reassured the 37-year-old.

Given the parallels between the lives of Castro and Obama, it would seem impossible for Obama not to have noticed the two-term mayor. Like the president, Castro earned a degree from Harvard Law School. Like Obama, Castro is the son of a single mother. And like Obama, some of Castro’s relationships can be seen as a challenge to mainstream political thought.

Obama’s personal connection with Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor, and his more tangential connection with William Ayers, a 1960s radical with whom Obama served on two foundation boards, have drawn vehement criticism from some conservatives.

For Castro, however, it is his mother – a leading figure of Texas’ La Raza Unida party, a nationalist Mexican-American movement that seeks equal rights for Latinos, who could become a lightning rod.

For Julian and Joaquin, both sons of Texas, statements like the ones their mother made in an interview with the New York Times Magazine, attacking one of the greatest sources of San Antonio pride – the Alamo and the battle for Texan independence – could prove problematic in their ability to sell themselves as Mexican-Americans.

Rosie Castro said “the ‘heroes’ of the Alamo were a bunch of drunks and crooks and slaveholding imperialists who conquered land that didn’t belong to them”, potentially a major contributing factor to conservative criticisms of her two sons.

Keynote address

On September 4, the similarities between the two politicians will be kicked into overdrive as Castro becomes the first Latino to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.

Obama’s 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention thrust the little-known Illinois senator into the national spotlight. Now, eight years later, some Democrats are hoping this speech will have a similar impact on Castro’s career.

Castro was born in San Antonio in 1974, and both Julián and his idential twin brother Joaquín graduated from Stanford University and Harvard Law School. Julián unashamedly cites controversial affirmative action policies, which take race into consideration during the admissions process, for his acceptance into Stanford.”

Obama has overseen an unprecedented number of deportations under his administration’s watch [Reuters]

I’m a strong supporter of affirmative action because I’ve seen it work in my own life”, he told the New York Times Magazine in 2010.

In 2001, Castro won a seat on the San Antonio City Council, and in 2009 was elected mayor of the heavily Latino city, the seventh most populous city in the country. He was re-elected in 2011 with 82 per cent of the vote.

Samuel Filler, who worked on Castro’s unsucessful 2005 mayoral bid said that from the onset “it was clear that [Julian] was committed to making the city better by being inclusive of all groups that grouped lived in [San Antonio], especially lower class Latinos”.

Filler says Castro’s strength, and part of what led him to later victory, was his ability to draw support from the diverse population of the city – the heavily Latino neighbourhoods in the south and west, the black population in the east, alongside the financial backing of the middle class in the northwest.

The relatability of Castro’s story for the nation’s nearly 50 million Latinos may be the key to his popularity.

“There are Latinos who have been here a very, very long time, even before the borders of our nations were drawn. There are also new immigrants,” says Wendy Carrillo, host of Knowledge is Power, a weekly show on Los Angeles radio station Power 106.

Record deportations

With an unprecedented number of deportations under his administration’s watch – 396,000 in 2010, almost seven per cent higher than the previous peak under George W Bush – Obama is hoping Castro can provide a much-needed boost to his image among Latinos.

Speaking to The Texas Tribune, Castro said: “The president has taken the initiative to ensure that the immigration system deals with folks humanely and on a case-by-case basis… from that perspective, he certainly gets it and he understands the importance of keeping families together.”

“Julian Castro represents a new generation of young Latino leaders. His speech at the DNC could be the foundation for higher aspirations … so that maybe, Democrats begin to really work on electing Latino-Americans to higher elected offices, as opposed to simply talking about the importance of the Latino vote.

– Wendy Carrillo, Host of Knowledge is Power

For some on the beltway, the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants deported during Obama’s term in office was a purely political move signalling to the president’s Republican rivals that he can be tough on traditionally Republican issues such as national security and the economy.

But Denise Lopez, who served as a regional field director for Nevada Senator Harry Reid’s 2010 re-election campaign and the child of Mexican immigrants herself, saw something else entirely in the administration’s record-setting number of deportations.

For the majority of Latinos in the US, what Obama actually did “was separate more families than any other president before him”, Lopez told Al Jazeera.

Democrats will be looking to Castro, whom Stephen Colbert referred to as “a young spry thing”, to counter that narrative. Already, Castro has pointed to an executive order signed by Obama in June entitled “Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” as an important step illustrating that the president understands the personal effects of immigration laws.

The executive order allows undocumented migrants who arrived before the age of 16 to apply for a two-year work or study visa that can be renewed indefinitely while they are in the US to work or attend school.

Are Latinos conservative?

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan famously said: “Hispanics are Republicans. They just don’t know it yet,” igniting a bid by the party to court the Latino vote through social issues.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan famously said ‘Hispanics are Republicans. They just don’t know it yet’ [GALLO/GETTY]

But Castro’s actions defy that convention. Dr Victoria M DeFrancesco Soto, Director of Communications at Latino Decisions, a research organisation focusing on states in which the Latino vote play an important electoral role, says polling data does not bear out the “the conventional wisdom of Latinos being very conservative”.

Soto points to a poll conducted by Latino Decisions and Univision that shows 43 per cent of Latinos favour allowing same-sex couples to marry, an issue the president and many in his cabinet support. Castro, a Roman Catholic, became the first mayor of his largely Catholic city to be grand marshal of San Antonio’s gay rights parade.

Another poll conducted by Lake Research Partners, a public opinion and political strategy research firm, found that 74 per cent of Latino voters believe a woman should have the right to have an abortion. In an interview with The New York Times Magazine, Castro said of abortion: “We disagree on this, the pope and I.”

For Carrillo, these statistics highlight that for many Latinos, moral issues “are trumped by ‘if you’re going to deport me because I’m brown'”.

Support for ‘free trade’

Though San Antonio is one of the few US cities to have escaped largely unscathed from the financial crisis, some of Castro’s economic policies may endear him more to his conservative colleagues than the Latino electorate. For some Latinos with connections to Mexico, Castro’s support of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed into law under the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton in 1994, is problematic.

The low pay, health risks and environmental impacts of the maquiladoras, manufacturing operations in a free trade zone that employ 1.3 million Mexicans in 3,000 factories, have been highly criticised by activists on both sides of the border. Conservatives, however, support the agreement.

Israel Ortega, editor at, a Spanish-language blog published by conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, says of immigration reform: “Politicians don’t understand the root causes of immigration. Mexicans and Latin Americans come to the US because they lack economic opportunities in their own nations.”

The NAFTA free trade agreement, says Ortega, is one way to address such disparities.

Julian is a great political force in the Latino community. He is a humble guy from humble beginnings. 

– Denise Lopez, regional field director for Senator Harry Reid’s re-election committee

But San Antonio’s economic success could be the economic key that Castro could use to open the door, not just to Latinos, but to all Americans who feel stifled by the financial downturn in the United States.

A March 2011 report released by the Brookings Institute found that, during the fourth quarter of 2010, San Antonio managed to place among the top US metropolitan areas in economic performance. The city was also only one of four metro areas ranked among the top 20 before and after the 2007-2009 recession.

San Antonio’s jobless rate in the fourth quarter of 2010 was 7.3 per cent, well below the national rate of 9.1 per cent.

The unemployment rate among Latinos nationwide is 11.4 per cent, down from a record high of 13.9 per cent in 2010, but still an overall increase of nearly five per cent since December 2007.

Median household wealth for Latino families, in contrast, fell from $18,359 in 2005 to $6,325 in 2009 – a decline of 66 per cent; representing the largest such drop among all US racial and ethnic groups.

These daunting figures lead 54 per cent of respondents to a Pew Hispanic Center poll to say they have been hit harder than any other group by the economic downturn. “Our community, like any other, is facing the constant struggle to continue making a payment on a mortgage,” says radio host Carrillo.

The Latino population is growing rapidly in the US: today, seven states are more than 20 per cent Latino. This makes Castro’s ability to identify not only with the Latino community, but also the wider US population, in his first nationwide public introduction, an extremely important step for the Democratic party in addressing the changing face of the country.