Barack Like Us

Michelle Obama offers up her American family.

Also in Slate: The “XX Factor” examined Michelle Obama’s speech.

Michelle Obama with daughters Malia and Sasha at the Democratic National Convention

I want to vote for Michelle Obama’s father. After listening to her speech to the Democratic Convention, it was his story of living with multiple sclerosis that sticks with me. He fumbled with his buttons every morning to put on his shirt. He walked on two canes just to make it across the room so that he could kiss his wife. When even the simplest daily routines got harder, he kept smiling. “He just woke up a little earlier, and worked a little harder,” said Michelle Obama. When the cameras cut to his widow with tears in her eyes, the moment was sealed.

My second preference would be to vote for Michelle Obama. That’s the biggest speech she’s ever given, and she was poised, not slick and inauthentic. People don’t know who she is. And what they do know about her may not be favorable, based on the frenzy over her remarks about being proud of her country for the first time. Those who watched now know she is a mother and a wife. She also showed how alive her husband’s message is in her own heart. She’s got the Obama bug, and it was obvious. She was more passionate about her husband’s message than he sometimes is.

And that’s the problem, if there was one, with her speech: I’m not sure what I learned about Barack Obama. If I’m an undecided voter, I don’t really have a story I can tell the next day at work about the guy at the top of the ticket. There were a lot of platitudes about what he believes, but the only glimpse we got of the Barack his wife knows was about his slow drive home from the hospital when their daughter was born.

Maybe we’ll learn those things about the candidate later this week. Michelle Obama had two goals: to show that she and her husband understand middle-class families and their trials, and to show that their empathy comes from their own experiences. Lots of people can relate to her parents’ life of struggle, so she hit that mark. And there wasn’t anything threatening about her speech—with the possible exception of her dress, which was perhaps too bold for Middle America.

The evening ended with the candidate talking to his wife from the giant screen, as Ronald Reagan did with Nancy Reagan during his nominating convention. It was a beautiful family tableau with the daughters interrupting to tell their dad they loved him. The whole bunch seemed straight out of Central Casting. That’s a cliché, and for the first black family with a realistic chance of living in the White House, becoming a cliché is a big win.