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BY MICHELLE BAUMAN
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Economic security for the middle class and access to free contraception as an essential part of women’s health care were major issues that dominated speeches and conversations at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
“Yes, our path is harder — but it leads to a better place,” said President Barack Obama in a Sept. 6 address as he accepted his party’s nomination for re-election.
Obama outlined an ambitious agenda for his second term, pledging to “create a million new manufacturing jobs in the next four years,” improve and expand access to education, expand clean-energy options, bolster national security and “reduce” the national deficit “without wrecking our middle class.”
That visionary agenda, he suggested, was threatened by policies advanced by his Republican opponents, “Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry or control health-care choices that women should make for themselves.”
The president’s speech was originally planned to be held in the Bank of America Stadium, but the threat of inclement weather led convention organizers to move it to the indoor Time Warner Cable Arena, where other convention speakers had addressed the delegates.
Weak employment numbers and the downgrading of the nation’s credit rating have cast a pall over the president’s re-election prospects. Throughout the three-day convention, speakers sought to defend their candidate’s record, while portraying his GOP opponents, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, as disconnected politicians who want to give tax credits to the wealthy and leave struggling Americans to fend for themselves with deep spending cuts into programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
Each speaker, from first lady Michelle Obama to former President Bill Clinton, made the case for the president’s re-election. They asserted that he had successfully reversed the economic crisis and was now laying the foundation for a more equitable system that provided opportunity for all, not just the wealthy.
Michelle Obama painted a picture of her husband as a compassionate man who can relate to the needs and interests of average Americans, saying that the past four years testified to his character and conviction.
In her Sept. 4 speech, Mrs. Obama told Americans: “We can trust Barack to do what he says he’s going to do, even when it’s hard.” She said that her husband “doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican or none of the above,” and, instead, he is “always looking for the very best in everyone he meets.”
President Clinton fired up the crowd on Sept. 5 with a 48-minute speech that described President Obama as a competent leader whose efforts to revive a devastated economy have been hampered by Republicans’ unwillingness to cooperate.
“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,” Clinton said, adding that the current president has created millions of jobs and is “still committed to constructive cooperation.”
Obama needs more time to accomplish his goals of building up America as “a nation of shared opportunities, shared responsibilities, shared prosperity, a shared sense of community,” he said.
Vice President Joe Biden preceded Obama’s address, offering a speech that praised his running mate’s courageous decisions to order the attack that killed Osama bin Laden and bail out the American automobile industry.
“We now find ourselves at the hinge of history. And the direction we turn is in your hands,” said Biden. “The journey of hope is not yet finished, but we are on our way.”
Women’s health care was among the most prominent topics at the convention, particularly the controversial Health and Human Services mandate that requires employers to offer co-pay-free birth control to employees in their health-care plans.
The mandate has drawn criticism from the U.S. bishops and other faith leaders who say it poses an unprecedented threat to the free exercise of church-affiliated institutions.
However, the mandate was praised by numerous abortion-rights advocates who used their prime-time speaking slots to attack Republican efforts to provide conscience protections and bar federal funding of Planned Parenthood.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, charged: “We cannot trust Mitt Romney to respect our rights.”
“He would overturn Roe v. Wade and sign into law a wave of outrageous restrictions on a woman’s ability to make decisions about her pregnancy,” she said.
Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, cautioned against “politicians who want to end access to birth control” and said that Romney is trying to “turn the clock back on a century of progress.”
Romney and Ryan “are committed to ending insurance coverage for birth control” and want to “turn women’s health-care decisions over to our bosses,” she claimed.
Law student Sandra Fluke echoed this argument, warning of “extreme, bigoted voices” in the Republican Party.
Fluke has been a notable figure in the birth-control debate since she testified in February before House Democrats to defend the contraception mandate and attack the anti-contraception policies of Georgetown University, where she attends law school. Georgetown, a Jesuit institution, bars the inclusion of contraception from its student health plan, but students who are prescribed contraception for medical reasons can get a prescription, and law students like Fluke can opt for an alternative health plan that provides contraception.
Further, despite the drumbeat of rhetoric attacking the GOP’s platform on women, the Republican Party platform does not seek a ban on birth control. Rather, party leaders say they would repeal the mandate that requires it to be offered for free, returning to pre-mandate policies that allow companies and individuals to purchase contraception as they see fit.
GOP leaders, in turn, have charged that Democrats are the extreme party, adopting a platform opposed to any restrictions or limitations on abortion and arguing that President Obama “has not respected the principle of religious liberty” in requiring free contraception to be included in health-insurance plans.
The Democratic platform also came under scrutiny during the convention for removing the single reference to God. The statement called for a government that gives “everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential.”
After the reference to God was removed, a furor ensued, with the blogosphere lighting up with arguments on both sides. Ultimately, after three ambiguous voice votes, the reference to God was reinserted into the platform.
In addition, the party’s platform garnered attention for its unprecedented support for the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions.
References to “marriage equality” were scattered throughout the three days of the convention, but the prime-time speakers did not give the subject a heavy emphasis.
Despite speculation that Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who recently married his male partner, would highlight the issue in his Sept. 6 address, the Massachusetts congressman focused on economic issues.
However, at a smaller caucus of “LGBT” delegates and supporters earlier in the day, Frank spoke very directly about the party’s endorsement of “gay marriage,” saying that the Democratic Party has become the party of the “gay movement.”
Other caucus speakers said the redefinition of marriage was “inevitable.” They insisted that they would not be content with civil unions but would demand the full recognition of “gay marriage.”
“There’s no such thing as halfway to justice,” said Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J.
Among the most notable Catholic voices at the convention was Sister Simone Campbell, who heads the social-justice lobby Network and led the “Nuns on the Bus” tour to protest Paul Ryan’s federal budget proposal.
Sister Simone criticized Republicans for failing to acknowledge the shared responsibility of Americans to care for their neighbors by securing funds for federal social programs. She applauded the president’s economic, health care and Medicaid policies.
“This is part of my pro-life stance and the right thing to do,” she said.
The convention also featured celebrity appearances by actresses Kerry Washington, Scarlett Johansson and Eva Longoria, who voiced approval for Obama’s economic policies and financial support of Planned Parenthood.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholics Bishops, offered the final benediction to conclude the convention.
He prayed for the nation’s leaders and for all Americans, as well as for immigrants, the poor and those struggling to find work.
“Renew in all of our people a respect for religious freedom in full, that first, most cherished freedom,” he added.
The cardinal, who also offered the closing benediction at the Republican National Convention, prayed for “those yet to be born” and for a respect for “the laws of nature and nature’s God.”
He also prayed, “May you mend our every flaw, confirming our soul in self-control, our liberty in law.”
Michelle Bauman is a staff writer for Catholic News Agency's Washington Bureau.