President Obama's address to the Democratic National Convention mostly traded 2008's lofty themes of hope and change for a more pragmatic message: this election is a choice, and selecting Mitt Romney will leave us worse off.
The implication was that a President Romney would undo much of what Obama has accomplished, in part by perpetuating what Obama described as tired, discredited Republican orthodoxy ("Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!").
But the speech was curiously lacking in specifics about Obama's record to date, sticking instead to a vague framework of "manufacturing, energy, education, national security, and the deficit" for a potential second term. Here are a few of the things the president left out:
Health care: The Affordable Care Act is Obama's signature achievement, a law that achieves the long-deferred Democratic dream of universal health care (while spurring Republican rancor.) Critics have faulted the Obama administration for failing to tout the law's benefits more, effectively ceding the rhetorical fight to opponents who cast "Obamacare" as a big-government takeover. But the word "health care" surfaced in Obama's speech only by way of denouncing Mitt Romney's plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act and restructure Medicare.
Financial reform: The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill is also up there on the list of Obama's momentous but polarizing achievements. In a rousing Wednesday night speech, Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, the architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created by Dodd-Frank, spoke of how Obama "squared his shoulders, planted his feet, and stood firm" against opponents of financial reform. But Obama scarcely mentioned his push to rein in Wall Street on Thursday, again touching on the topic only as a cautionary tale about a Romney victory: "I don't believe that rolling back regulations on Wall Street will help the small businesswoman expand, or the laid-off construction worker keep his home."
The stimulus: Obama spent time talking about the revival of the auto industry and steady growth in manufacturing jobs, but he did not mention the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that helped avert an economic depression.
All of this was striking not just because of what Obama failed to mention but because of the accomplishments he did emphasize. He devoted several paragraphs of his speech to energy policy, praising his administration's efforts to raise fuel standards and invest in renewable energy while noting that the United States has become less dependent on foreign oil. Once again, this was cast in terms of a choice.
"We've opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration in the last three years, and we'll open more," Obama said. "But unlike my opponent, I will not let oil companies write this country's energy plan, or endanger our coastlines, or collect another $4 billion in corporate welfare from our taxpayers."
Obama also devoted a significant chunk of his speech to the work his administration has done to raise school standards -- significant because of how Obama's education record, from the Race to the Top program to his issuing waivers that free states from a central piece of the No Child Left Behind education law, has played a minimal role in the presidential race so far.
And the president spent a fair amount of time talking about foreign policy, from the death of Osama bin Laden to the winding down of Iraq and Afghanistan to nuclear nonproliferation agreements. It was a sharp contrast with Mitt Romney, who barely mentioned foreign policy during his nomination acceptance speech, but underscoring that difference was part of the point. Romney, Obama said, is unprepared to lead the United States on the world stage.
"My opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy, but from all that we've seen and heard, they want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly," Obama said.
The takeaway? Rather than refight old battles over lightning rods like health care and financial reform, Obama focused strategically on other areas where he could clearly differentiate himself from Romney, making this election what the Obama team has hoped for all along: a clear choice between competing visions for America.