CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—Delegates were enthusiastic for every prime-time speaker at the Democratic National Convention last night. San Antonio mayor Julian Castro received big applause for his riff on opportunity—“My mother fought for civil rights, so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone”—and former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland won cheers for his harsh attacks on Mitt Romney’s “economic patriotism.”
But for all of its excitement, the crowd saved its adulation for Michelle Obama’s closing message to tonight’s session of the convention. She was a superstar—delegations passed out “Michelle Obama” signs, attendees stood and clapped at every opportunity, and on several occasions, she was drowned out by the roar of the crowd.
If you watched or listened to the speech, it’s not hard to understand the overwhelmingly positive reaction. Obama has grown into an extremely capable speaker—like Ann Romney, her tone was genuine, but with a steady firmness that’s reminiscent of more experienced politicians. She emphasized her points without raising her voice—as opposed to other speakers like Corey Booker and Deval Patrick—and came across as a warm and welcoming First Lady.
Just as important as the style was the substance. Like Ann Romney, she began by talking about family life with her husband and children. But rather than discuss their courtship or marriage, Obama talked about her and Barack’s upbringing. Her father worked as a pump operator for the city, and Barack Obama—as most Americans know by now—was raised by his grandparents and a single mother.
This wasn’t aimless nostalgia. If you can say that the Obamas have an “advantage” over the Romneys, it’s that they have an eminently relatable life story. Far more Americans have grown up in working-class homes or with single mothers than have been the wealthy scions of prominent families. If the Romney story is meant to make the family seem relatable, the Obama story is meant to resonate.
In all of this is politics. One of the best portions of Michelle Obama’s speech came in the middle, when she used her and her husband’s experiences as the basis for a broad and aspirational definition of American values:
They didn’t begrudge anyone else’s success or care that others had much more than they did … in fact, they admired it. […]
We learned about honesty and integrity—that the truth matters … that you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules … and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square.
We learned about gratitude and humility—that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean … and we were taught to value everyone’s contribution and treat everyone with respect.
Without mentioning either—or even sounding partisan—Michelle Obama succinctly and powerfully rebutted the guiding narrative of Mitt Romney’s campaign and the Republican Party. She doesn’t have an equivalent to “We Built It,” but she does have a message that reflects the lived experience of most Americans. Success is a product of community investment as much as individual effort, and it doesn’t diminish the former to acknowledge the latter. With “the truth matters,” there is also a small dig at Romney, who has been criticized—by myself and others—for his campaign’s constant mendacity.
“We learned …” formed the bridge to the final section of the speech, where she described President Obama’s accomplishments and presented them as key to building a society that honors the values she described. The Affordable Care Act ensures that “no one in this country should ever go broke because of an accident or illness.” Race to the Top and expanded Pell Grants are part of “giving our kids the education they deserve.” And the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is part of securing equality and respecting “the pride that comes from a hard day’s work.”
This was such a good speech that it’s hard not to be effusive about its content and delivery. Which is why it’s important to remember the extent to which President Obama has disappointed on the central objective of his administration: bringing the economy out of recession, and paving the road to recovery. Conditions are unquestionably better than they were when Obama took office, but his poor response to the housing crisis—coupled with his unwillingness to advocate for greater action from the Federal Reserve—has yielded a slow and unsteady recovery that has jeopardized his bid for reelection.
Even still, it’s fair to say that last night was the best performance of any speaker at either convention. Indeed, if it wasn’t clear already, it’s now evident that—if she wants it—Michelle Obama can follow in the footsteps of Hillary Clinton and launch a second career as a politician.
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