A four-term Representative from Missouri, Emmanuel Cleaver is a former mayor of Kansas City and serves as a United Methodist pastor.
Cleaver, 67, is the current chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, an organization that includes President Barack Obama among its past members.
Shortly after presiding over a church service in Charlotte, Cleaver spoke to Al Jazeera’s Charles McDermid about the 2012 Democratic convention and its role in the presidential race.
Al Jazeera: If the 2008 Obama campaign was about hope and change, what is this the message this year?
Emmanuel Cleaver: Well, this time around we are defending an incumbent and his record. It is infinitely easier to go through a campaign with an untested candidate going against an unpopular incumbent.
[In the 2008 presidential race] John McCain was pretty much the incumbent and he had to defend the indefensible in [former president] George W Bush.
The difference is now Obama has the office and record and has to defend it.
AJ: In that case, what is main goal of this year’s convention?
EC: The biggest challenge of all for the president and the Democrats is that they will have a convention that does not have anything to do but have a pep rally. The message is “Let’s go out and do it again.”
It does help that the Republicans have a candidate that even a lot of Republicans believe is not a believer.
We know exactly what we have to do. We have to ignite a level of enthusiasm comparable to what we had four years ago, and if we do that, we win.
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AJ: Is the level of enthusiasm the same as in 2008?
EC: It would be disingenuous to say we do. Part of that is about expectations. Let me tell you: I was the first African American mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, and my inauguration celebration was the biggest in Kansas City history. I can tell you there was a great deal of pressure that went with that. It makes the process different when you have to live up to expectations.
In the same way, [the Democrats] are measured by the expectations we created four years ago.
AJ: So what would you say has happened to those expectations?
EC: There are people who are to some degree disappointed. Let’s face it: it’s not as sexy to run for a second term. There’s an image and a record to defend and the economy, although it is clearly on the rebound, is still somewhat weak. It’s a greater challenge. People are not as fired up.
AJ: In that case, what are the positives you see going into the next phase of the election?
EC: Well, what our convention won’t do to fire up our base, the Republican convention has already done. The Republicans presented concrete motivation for us to work hard and re-elect the president. The agenda they put forward is weak and is a sequel to the George [W] Bush presidency, and nobody wants that.
AJ: Do you think the loss of enthusiasm for Obama is apparent in African American voters?
EC: Obama will still win 90 per cent of the black vote, but the question is 90 per cent of what. What we’re worried about is people not voting. We can’t afford low turnout.
AJ: How do you see the election playing out, and what is at stake for the country?
EC: It’s not just about electing Barack Obama or [Mitt] Romney. We are designing the future government of the United States, and that has impact on the whole world. This election is a referendum on the government, not of Barack Obama, but of this country.
There have been those who successfully convinced people they should hate their government. What this election will decide is whether the government has a legitimate role to play in the lives of its people.