Barack Obama has said that his biggest mistake in office is that he hasn’t told the right story to the American public. Maybe he should have let his wife tell it. First lady Michelle Obama delivered a powerful and deft defense of her husband, wrapping him in biography and the American story. She also started the process of rebutting the previous week’s attacks.
At the heart of her speech Tuesday night was an effort to stretch the timeline beyond the four years of a single term. For the last two days, Democrats have been trying to answer the question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Michelle Obama said this struggle to restore the middle class—her husband’s struggle—is bigger than a single election.
To make her case, the first lady started with family history. She told the story of her father who had multiple sclerosis but buttoned the buttons on his uniform each morning and lifted one leg, and then the other, to climb the stairs home at night. She talked about the president’s grandmother who worked every day despite the frustrations of the glass ceiling.
The message was that Obama comes from struggle. He understands what you’re going through. Ann Romney talked about tuna fish. Michelle Obama took her details further. The car that was rusted out, the coffee table rescued from the dumpster, and the pair of decent shoes that were a half size too small. “For Barack, these issues aren’t political–they’re personal. Because Barack knows what it means when a family struggles. He knows what it means to want something more for your kids and grandkids.”
At the heart of the “you didn’t build that” charge from Republicans is that Obama is disconnected from something fundamental about the country. Michelle Obama’s biographical tour was a push against that. It was a celebration of the ethic of hard work for the dignity of a paycheck. She took a tour through those values instilled by this example—“dignity and decency,” “honesty and integrity,” “gratitude and humility.” That ethic was in keeping with a collage of American icons—the patriots who founded the country, the suffragettes, and those who struggled through the Depression. “Doing the impossible is in the history of this nation,” she said, in an attempt to make Obama seem so grand and so mightily engaged in the central struggles of the age that to measure his progress so early would be wrong.
The first lady’s task was to reflect what she sees in the nation and then show how that vision is reflected in her husband. This is what Ann Romney also did as she told the stories of those who struggled with high gas prices and extra jobs. Michelle Obama ran through the same kinds of stories, about the teacher who had to buy the school supplies and the blinded soldier who would have done it all again.
It was striking on this first night how completely the national security issue has flipped between the parties. As conservative commentator Bill Kristol remarked after Mitt Romney’s speech last week, it was a glaring omission that the Republican candidate didn’t celebrate the men and women fighting for the country. The Democrats would make no such mistake. We saw veterans, tributes to military families, and repeated references to their sacrifice. Michelle Obama was introduced by Elaine Brye, a mother who has four children on active duty. “If someone is there for my family then I’ll be there for them,” she said of the first lady.
If the speech is effective beyond the power of well delivered rhetoric, it will be because the first lady took this description of Obama’s core self and linked it to policy. This is what Ann Romney and Mitt Romney never did. The message of the GOP convention was “Trust Mitt.” That was Michelle Obama’s message too: Her husband could be trusted because he came from a humble background and has lived a middle class life. But then she started connecting the biography to the policy. This was always Bill Clinton’s great gift. If this connection is successfully made, then that’s what will make this pitch worth more politically than just a pretty speech by a loving wife who thinks her husband deserves an A for effort.
“We were so young, so in love, and so in debt,” she joked about their early student loan debt, which was higher than their mortgage. “That’s why Barack has fought so hard to increase student aid.” She made the same connection between Obama’s grandmother and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to help women get equal pay for equal work. Tax cuts, the auto bailout, and every other policy, she argued, grew out of his biography.
Michelle Obama’s message at the Democratic convention was that her husband has not given up on the country, so the country shouldn’t give up on her husband. “You see, I’ve gotten to see up close and personal what being president really looks like. And I’ve seen how the issues that come across a president’s desk are always the hard ones. … At the end of the day, when it comes time to make that decision, as president, all you have to guide you are your values, and your vision, and the life experiences that make you who you are.” At the GOP convention Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan said they would make hard choices. Michelle Obama’s argument was that her husband should be kept in office because he already had.
Also in Slate, David Plotz wonders why convention speeches aren’t more like TED talks, David Weigel says the Democrats are kicking Mitt where it hurts, and William Saletan advises the Democrats on how to answer, “Are you better off now than four years ago?” View a gallery of Obama murals from across America, and check out photos from Charlotte. Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.