On Tuesday night Michelle Obama bared her arms, held America’s hand and threw some elbows. In delivering one of the most impassioned convention speeches in recent memory, the vibrant First Lady framed President Obama’s emphasis on fairness in emotive personal anecdotes. The crowd was moved to tears and cheers of “four more years.” And though she never mentioned Mitt Romney by name, her case for her husband’s second term was also one against the challenger’s credentials.
As she did in 2008, Obama structured her remarks around her blue-collar biography. But this time, there were implied contrasts with those who didn’t come to understand American values by scraping by for the American dream. She told the story of her father, who worked through multiple sclerosis and took out loans to put her through school. “That’s what it meant to be a man,” she said. “Like so many of us, that was the measure of his success in life: being able to earn a decent living that allowed him to support his family.” Last week when prominent Republicans mentioned the word success, it was code for Romney’s wealth. “Success isn’t about how much money you make,” the First Lady said. “It’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”
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Michelle made the audience feel like they were peeking behind the Obama’s curtains. She told stories of dating young Barack, who had a rusty car and shoes a half-size too small. She joked about how the couple had once owed more on their combined student loans than on their mortgage. “We were so young, so in love–and so in debt,” she said. “For Barack these issues [like student loans] aren’t political, they’re personal.” The President was described as a dad, a man who counseled his daughters on middle school friendships during family dinners.
At the beginning of her speech, Obama emphasized how anxious she had been in 2008. “Like any mother, I was worried about what it would mean for our girls,” she said. Since then, she had changed. But her husband hadn’t. “When it comes to his character and his convictions and his heart,” she said, “Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago.” She implied that while she wasn’t in the same historic moment, when America was on the cusp of electing the country’s first African-American President, her husband was still the same historic figure.
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The First Lady spoke empathetically of the people she had met during her travels around “the greatest nation on earth,” the teachers and the firefighters and the military families. Discussing a reelection battle that’s taking place amid a struggling economy, she could hardly paint a rosy picture, but she could argue that the painting was unfinished. “We’ve got to keep working to fix this,” she said. “We’ve got so much more to do.” She championed healthcare reform, victories for the LGBT community and her husband’s support of women’s issues.
Romney’s strength lies in is his image as an effective businessman, in what his number-crunching mastery could do for the country’s financial woes. And Obama had a counterpoint to make there, too. She said she had watched the work of a President up close, seeing how hard decisions were made. No amount of facts or analysis creates a path to the right decision, she said: “All you have to guide you are your values and your vision.” Convention speeches are usually about making a connection between the right man and the right moment—a job that was much easier when speaking about a challenger in 2008 than an incumbent in 2012. But she argued that he was an even better man now. “I have seen firsthand that being President doesn’t change who you are,” she said. “It reveals who you are.” The crowd roared in approval. The question is whether the voters watching the speech at home will feel the same.