CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The first night of the Democratic convention will be defined by the soaring and moving speech from First Lady Michelle Obama. It will be remembered as the night San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro entered the national political stage with a speech that echoed President Barack Obama's own from 2004. For those digging a bit deeper, the most memorable lines from the undercard will be the repeated and increasingly blunt broadsides launched at Mitt Romney's business practices and personal finances.
Underneath it all, however, was a potentially significant effort to recast the debate around the president's most ambitious and controversial achievement -- one that Obama's advisers said they hope will shape voter perceptions heading into the fall.
Nineteen speakers on Tuesday night devoted at least a portion of their speeches to reaffirming the virtues of the Affordable Care Act. At least three proudly called it "Obamacare."
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius devoted her address to explaining the law in detail. Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who repeatedly advised the president to pare down the law during its crafting, marveled at Obama's "courage" for pursuing comprehensive reform.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, in one of the night's more impassioned addresses, implored the crowd, and Democrats at large, "to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe." He then offered a demonstration: "This is the president who delivered the security of affordable health care to every single American after 90 years of trying."
Stacey Lihn, an Arizona woman, told the story of her sick children, who she said could now purchase insurance because of the Affordable Care Act. Her mention of the Supreme Court decision to affirm the law drew thunderous applause. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) proudly embraced the term Obamacare, urging Democrats "not to run from" the moniker.
Actor Kal Penn thanked the president "for giving my friends access to affordable health insurance," and former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and Castro applauded Obama for achieving something that seven presidents, since Teddy Roosevelt, had tried and failed to achieve. Even North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue, who isn't seeking reelection because her standing has been so battered, cheered the president for fighting "to guarantee that women have access to quality, affordable health care."
Michelle Obama recalled that her husband "refused to listen to all those folks who told him to leave health reform for another day, another president."
"He didn't care whether it was the easy thing to do politically," she said, "that's not how he was raised. He cared that it was the right thing to do."
For Democrats who had anxiously insisted that the party needed to keep trying to sell the Affordable Care Act -- despite failed effort after failed effort -- it was a dream night.
"I am not sure why it took us so long as a party to get to this point, but I am glad to see we are finally beginning to passionately defend health care reform. The haters can keep on hating, but in the meantime, more and more people are finding out how much good was in the bill," said Jim Manley, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's former press secretary, who spent more time defending the legislation than perhaps any spokesman other than those inside the administration. "Single-payer it is not, and of course we couldn't pass the public option, but the fact is we own it and we need to defend it -- because there is lots of good stuff in the bill."
Ethan Rome, executive director of Health Care for America Now, said the time devoted to Obamacare on Tuesday night was the definitive signal that the party wouldn't run from the legislation as many members had done in the 2010 election.
"The Democrats used the first night of their convention to embrace it, celebrate it and tell America how important it is," Rome said. "The whole evening was optimistic and focused on the future, in stark contrast to the Republicans' dark vision and obsession with fighting old battles."
Indeed, it appeared that by the end of the night, the president's health care law had gotten more mentions from the slate of Democratic speakers than it had during the entirety of the Republican convention the week prior. And it wasn't accidental. A top Obama aide said the repeated references were part of the convention's broader theme and scope.
"The focus is on how we restore economic security for the middle class, and access to affordable care," said the aide. "Accessible health care is one of the pillars of that."
Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager, was more direct, arguing that the law's merits make it worth defending.
"Some of the most powerful stories we heard tonight were about the Affordable Care Act, and there’s a reason for that," Cutter said in an email. "It’s saving lives."
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