The Slatest

Michelle Obama Might Be Hillary’s Best Surrogate. Watch This.

Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama at the fourth annual Award for International Women of Courage ceremony at the State Department on March 10, 2010, in Washington, D.C.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Michelle Obama took to the campaign trail in support of Hillary Clinton in Virginia on Friday and issued a blistering attack against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his birther past.

Without mentioning Trump by name, Obama laid out the case for why he is unfit to be president and took particular care to note the time he had spent questioning her husband’s status as an American citizen—and thus the legality of his presidency—a position that Trump only renounced on Friday.

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“There were those who questioned and continue to question for the past eight years up through this very day whether my husband was even born in this country,” she said, clearly in reference to the Republican candidate. “Well, during his time in office I think Barack has answered those questions with the examples he set by going high when they go low.”

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Obama then went on to lay out the stakes of electing a President Trump to the Oval Office instead of Hillary Clinton.

“Here’s what I’ve learned about this job: First and foremost, this job is hard. This is the highest stakes, most 24/7 job you could possibly imagine,” she said.

“We need someone not with good judgment but with superb judgment in their own right,” Obama continued. “Because the president can hire the best advisers on earth, but let me tell you something five advisers will give five different opinions. And the president and the president alone is always the one to make the final call.”

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This was a clever way of framing the choice for president to independents and Republicans who might dislike both candidates and settle for Trump with the expectation that he would rely on advisers to guide his presidency. She then pivoted back to criticizing Trump’s temperament, again without saying the candidate’s name: “We also need someone who is steady and measured, because when you’re making life or death, war or peace decisions, a president can’t just pop off.”

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This was where Obama intimated toward a litany of Trump’s campaign scandals—including his attacks on a Gold Star family—putting the consequences of the United States electing someone with Trump’s character as president in the starkest possible terms:

As I’ve said before, the presidency doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are. The same thing is true of a presidential campaign. So if a candidate is erratic and threatening, if a candidate traffics in prejudice, fears, and lies on the trail, if a candidate has no clear plans to implement their goals, if they disrespect their fellow citizens—including folks who’ve made extraordinary sacrifices for our country—let me tell you that is who they are. That is the kind of president they will be. … A candidate is not going to suddenly change once they get into office. Just the opposite in fact, because the minute that individual takes that oath, they are under the hottest, harshest light there is and there is no way to hide who they really are. And at that point, it’s too late. They’re the leader of the world’s largest economy. The commander in chief of the most powerful military force on earth. With every word they utter, they can start wars, crash markets, change the course of this planet.

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Then she made the affirmative case for Hillary Clinton, while continuing her attack on Trump.

“Right now we have the opportunity to elect one of the most qualified people who has ever endeavored to become president,” Obama argued. “No one in her lifetime has ever had as much experience and exposure to the presidency, not Barack, not Bill—as he would say, nobody—and, yes, she happens to be a woman.

“We cannot afford to squander this opportunity particularly given the alternative because here’s what we know: Being president isn’t anything like reality TV. It isn’t about sending insulting tweets or making fiery speeches.”

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Finally, she laid out the stakes for individual voters, specifically calling out younger voters and implicitly those who may have supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary but might now be reluctant to back Clinton.

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“Elections aren’t just about who votes, but who doesn’t vote. And that is especially true of young voters like you,” she said to the crowd at George Mason University. “In fact in 2012 voters under the age of 30 provided the margin of victory for Barack in four key battleground states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and right here in Virginia.”

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At this point she got specific, telling the audience that Obama won his 2012 re-election campaign over Mitt Romney by just 31 votes per precinct in Virginia, nine votes per precinct in Ohio, and six votes per precinct in Florida. Again, this seemed like an incredibly effective message to any would-be Democratic voter who was considering voting for Green Party candidate Jill Stein or skipping the election because of dislike for Hillary.

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Not only was the substance of Obama’s speech an example of how she will be possibly Clinton’s strongest campaign surrogate on the campaign trail, so was the fact of who it was that was delivering it.

As Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley’s noted after Michelle Obama eviscerated Trump in her prime-time address at the Democratic National Convention in July and Trump—who never lets an attack go without a response—could only praise her: Trump doesn’t know how to respond to the first lady. Perhaps it’s because her approval ratings continue to hover around the mid-60s, well above both Clinton’s, Trump’s, and even her husband’s. Perhaps, as Mathis-Lilley suggested, Trump is scared of going after her. For whatever reason, Michelle Obama is the one person that Trump can’t seem to bring himself to attack.

If the Clinton campaign continues to deploy Michelle Obama this effectively, he will eventually have to try to come up with some response.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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