There are few, if any, politicians who can give a speech through the lens of parenthood without sounding like they’re putting on folksy airs while their nannies put the kids to bed.
Good thing Michelle Obama isn’t a politician. Her Monday night speech at the Democratic National Convention, a rhetorical gem delivered with deep conviction, drove home the most convincing omnibus argument the party can make against Trump: America’s children.
In the first truly inspiring speech of the night (as far as this cynic is concerned), Obama laid out an affirmative case for Hillary Clinton as a president who’ll hand off a better country to the next generation. She also hinted at the global disasters a Donald Trump presidency might bring—“when you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command … you can’t have a thin skin or tendency to lash out”—but she never even said his name. Her thrust was uplifting, buoyed by hope and gratitude, a welcome reprieve from the persistent anxiety and low-grade panic many of us have been feeling in the days since the RNC wrapped up.
Introduced by a J.J. Abrams–directed video of children saying adorable things about her (“she’s definitely one of my favorite first ladies—probably first or second out of three”; “she’s not just a woman standing next to a man”), Obama recalled her apprehensions about bringing her daughters to Washington after Barack was inaugurated in 2009. Watching Sasha and Malia leave for school in Secret Service vehicles “with all those big men with guns,” Obama said, “the only thing I could think was ‘what have we done?’ ”
Back then, Obama’s misgivings about raising kids in the White House were no secret; for many, that protective instinct and skepticism of political glamour was a clear testament to her superlative competence as a parent. That history made her Monday night speech about parenting to kids in the age of Trump all the more convincing. In Obama’s house, she and Barack “insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country,” she said. “We explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ ”
And who does this exemplary parent with an unimpeachable moral compass and instinct for leadership trust with the keys to the nation we’ll leave our children? “Our friend Hillary Clinton,” who has long advocated for “every child who needs a champion.” Obama listed Clinton’s much-trumpeted bona fides: Clinton fought for kids with disabilities as a lawyer, championed health care for children as first lady, and worked for affordable child care in the Senate.
But Obama knows that the effect of the presidency is nearly as much symbolic as substantive, that policy proposals may wither or fade or lose in the next election, but character and narrative echo for generations. She recounted one of the most heartwarming anecdotes from the Obama era: the moment a little black boy asked to touch Barack’s hair to see if it felt like his own. Then, she connected Clinton’s candidacy to the historic arc of representative politics that Barack’s presidency hearkened. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters—two beautiful, intelligent black young women—playing with their dogs on the White House lawn,” Obama said. “And because of Hillary Clinton my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”
Clinton has used the “children are watching” angle to great effect in a frightening ad that shows kids watching a reel of Trump’s lowest blows. Earlier on Monday night, Kirsten Gillibrand tried the mom angle in a speech about the struggles of working parents. (“Some people know me as United States senator from New York. But during school dropoff and pickup, I’m better known as Theo and Henry’s mom,” she said. Did anyone believe her?) But Michelle Obama is maybe the only person—and certainly the best person—who could credibly give a children-centered speech from the perspective of a concerned mother without coming across as quaint or condescending. This will be a speech for future aspiring first ladies to plagiarize for years to come. And if Clinton wins, she’ll have Obama in part to thank. America’s children will, too.