Michelle Obama Brings Down the House at the DNC

She demanded better of America, both highlighting the changes that have occurred under the Obama Administration and talking about how much further we needed to go.
Publish date:
September 5, 2012
politics, Michelle Obama, 2012 election

We can close the DNC, because Michelle Obama said all that needed to be said last night. Time to pack it up, kids, preferably before someone gets on stage to address an empty chair; always better to end on a high note than to drag these things out, and it’s not like there’s any doubt that the President will get the nomination.

Whether you think the spouse speech is an outdated stereotype or a savvy political move, Michelle Obama’s speech at the DNC last night was a barn raiser; my Twitter feed would not shut up about it, and she easily outperformed Romney when it came to mentions on Twitter. If we elected Presidents by social media (which the Obama campaign has been working hard), we’d be looking at Michelle for POTUS. I spied a few people talking an Obama/Clinton ticket featuring, of course, Michelle and Hillary.

The spouse speech is a strange tradition, as discussed by Shelby Knox recently; the spouse is supposed to get up on stage to humanize her husband, convincing people that he cares about women’s issues and has a softer, gentler side. It’s her job to appeal to the down-home values while her husband handles that heavy policy stuff, and Knox rightly questions whether male spouses would be expected to make the same speech for female candidates.

Michelle’s speech, though, carried a touch of steel. Yes, it included a personal narrative, and one that came directly from the heart, connecting the President’s politics and policies to their life experiences and those of their families. It also included a political narrative, tying in these policies with the larger idea of the American Dream; while I happen to disagree with the concept of bootstrapping, the Obamas provide a brilliant illustration of the bootstrapping ideal, and Michelle definitely worked that in her speech. For those who aspire to that vision of the US, the First Lady’s speech struck some strong chords.

And she deftly took on the Romney narrative, underscoring the differences between the two candidates and casting Obama as the everyman, and Romney as the elite:

We learned about dignity and decency – that how hard you work matters more than how much you make...that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself...success doesn't count unless you earn it fair and square.

Direct shot across the bow, there.

It was a speech about triumph over obstacles that managed to directly highlight racial inequality without actually saying the words, a stroke of brilliance in a nation with deep racial tensions. And it was a speech in which gender inequality was openly confronted; she dropped Lilly Ledbetter’s name, she talked about the glass ceiling, she was unafraid to take sexism by the horns and drag it around the stage in a passionate, but clear-eyed, speech.

She demanded better of America, both highlighting the changes that have occurred under the Obama Administration and talking about how much further we needed to go.

More than that, though, she testified to what the President is like as a man and father, and her worries about how he might change in the White House. This was perhaps the killer line in the speech for me:

...after so many struggles and triumphs and moments that have tested my husband in ways I never could have imagined, I have seen firsthand that being president doesn't change who you are – it reveals who you are.

It was, of course, a stump speech for the President, a call to arms to rally people around reelection. And it was an intimate glimpse inside the White House, to the fears Mrs. Obama struggled with as the President took office and started work. This was the part of the speech we were supposed to see as humanizing, intended to make us familiar with Barack-the-man, not the President of the United States, but even in her talk about life within the White House, she managed to connect the political and the personal. Always, Michelle stayed on point with driving home a message.

This is a woman who deeply loves her husband and always has, and isn’t afraid to talk about it. Cynics might argue that this is a spouse’s job; she’s not going to get up there on stage and talk about a fight over breakfast or differences of opinion on key policy. But this isn’t an act. Their love for each other runs deep and it’s obvious in the public appearances they make together, how they interact, the way they look at each other. There’s something giddy making about seeing two people so deeply wrapped around each other occupying the White House, and you can see why people talk about a return to Camelot when talking about the First Family.

The First Lady connected that with larger policy issues, talking about the daily struggles in the White House as her husband attempts to balance the needs of a huge and sometimes conflicted country. And she did it with grace, style, and a touch of ferocity in a speech she reportedly wrote herself and spent a month carefully tailoring, eschewing the usual speechwriter for this one; let no one say that Michelle is just a figurehead.

She concluded the speech with the obligatory “mom-in-chief” line, which has gotten her a lot of flak among feminist critics, but I’d argue that line needs to be read with more depth and complexity. This is about a Black woman occupying a national stage, talking about her husband, talking about her family, talking about being a mother, in a country where Black mothers are treated with disdain, suspicion, and sneers. She's a woman whose very presence on the national political stage is so offensive to some people that anything she says is perceived as radical.

And this is a woman who wasn’t just speaking about her own daughters, but all children in the United States; her speech was about the myriad frustrations of a dream denied and the huge obstacles children and young adults are facing in this country, and her conclusion was about advocacy, not about reducing herself. Those who read that line as an indicator that she’s not actively involved in policy and she’s allowed her entire career to be subsumed by being a parent misread it.

She’s a fighter on the front lines and she’s bringing her experience to that fight alongside her husband. And if she can mobilize voters as effectively as she can Twitter users, she'll be looking at another four years to carry that fight on.

Photo Credits: Official White House Photostream.