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U.S. President Barack Obama celebrates with first lady Michelle Obama after accepting the 2012 U.S Democratic presidential nomination during the final session of Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 6, 2012.Jim Young

U.S. President Barack Obama has asked Americans for another term to fix decades-old problems too deep to solve in four years, promising to pursue pragmatic solutions but standing tough against Republican calls to radically shrink the size of government.

Striking a defiant tone at the Democratic convention on Thursday night, Mr. Obama sought to frame his first term as a solid start in tackling the country's long-term economic challenges, while laying down broad goals for jobs and the deficit in a second mandate.

Saying this election offered the "clearest choice" in a generation, Mr. Obama insisted his policies on taxes, energy, health care and education would strengthen the middle class and offer a ladder into it for the poor. Republican nominee Mitt Romney's plan, he countered, would sap government's ability to level the playing field.

"All they have to offer is the same prescriptions they've had for the last 30 years. Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning," Mr. Obama said. "We don't think government can solve all our problems. But we don't think that government is the source of all our problems."

Four years after sweeping Americans off their feet, and vowing to bridge the country's partisan and racial divides, Mr. Obama on Thursday addressed a nation that views him with mixed emotions and no longer puts much stock in his ability to change Washington.

Facing a more skeptical electorate now, Mr. Obama finds himself in a dead heat with Mr. Romney, despite the GOP nominee's far lower likeability ratings. Going into Thursday's speech, Mr. Obama's biggest challenge was persuading voters to trust him in the one area where they rank Mr. Romney more favourably: fixing the economy.

But instead of pitching his speech to voters in the centre, particularly those in swing states wary of his interventionist instincts, Mr. Obama appeared to direct most of his remarks at the Democratic base in a bid to mobilize the coalition of young, minority and female voters who put him in the White House in 2008.

"If you turn away now, if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn't possible, well, change will not happen," Mr. Obama said.

He promised to stop Republican attempts to cut taxes on the rich and gut Medicare. He vowed to tackle climate change, take on lobbyists and reform campaign finance. He pledged to block "Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry or control health-care choices that women should be making for themselves."

Mr. Obama set a target of a million new manufacturing jobs by 2016 and promised to cut net oil imports in half by 2020. He vowed to slow annual increases in university tuition and train two million workers for "real jobs" at community colleges over the next decade.

Mr. Obama leveraged his own successes abroad to ridicule Mr. Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan, saying they were "new to foreign policy" and "stuck in Cold War time warp."

Taking a swipe at Mr. Romney's criticism of Olympic organizers on a July trip to London, Mr. Obama added: "You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can't visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally."

Despite the brief foray into foreign policy, however, most of Mr. Obama's speech was that of a President battle-tested from governing through the toughest economic times since the Depression, and one determined to finish the job he started. He did not promise a transformational second term, as much as a constructive one.

"The truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades," Mr. Obama said. "But know this, America: Our problems can be solved. Our challenges can be met. The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place."

A video tribute to Mr. Obama, narrated by actor George Clooney, was played before the President took the podium. He spoke before a crowd of about 20,000 in a Charlotte arena who had spent the previous six hours alternately listening to attacks on Mr. Romney and dancing to live performances by Mary J. Blige, James Taylor, Marc Anthony and the Foo Fighters – musical acts roughly corresponding to the rainbow coalition Mr. Obama is trying to reassemble for his re-election.

In a speech preceding Mr. Obama's, Vice-President Joe Biden said Mr. Romney, the former Bain Capital private-equity chieftain who opposed the auto bailouts, did not understand what was at stake as the industry stood on the precipice.

"I think he saw it the Bain way. … I think he saw it in terms of balance sheets and write-offs," Mr. Biden said. "Folks, the Bain way may bring your firm the highest profits. But it's not the way to lead our country from the highest office."

But by the time the balloons came down, it was Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee and a leading candidate to become secretary of state in a second Obama administration, who could lay claim to the night's most memorable remark.

"Ask Osama Bin Laden if he's better off now than he was four years ago," Mr. Kerry said, turning the Republican accusation that Americans are worse off under Mr. Obama on its head.