It was a tough act for Michelle Obama to follow. First the audience of world luminaries watched Bill Clinton ease behind the podium and praise her husband. Then they laughed as the man with whom she shares the White House introduced her, describing his good fortune never to have run a campaign against his “better half” (“She would have beat me thoroughly,” the president said). If she felt any pressure before Thursday’s speech to the celebrities, billionaires, and world leaders of Clinton’s Global Initiative, the other speakers on the ticket (Bill Gates was coming next) could not have provided much comfort.
In perhaps the first lady’s most significant stride yet into the limelight, Obama delivered exactly what struggling Democratic candidates from California to Wisconsin will hope to see during her upcoming national tour: a heartfelt appeal on a home-run topic, delivered with ease. The president didn’t say so during his introduction, but he may well have ceded the podium to the best-liked Democrat in America.
When she spoke, Obama appealed to the NGOs in the audience to hire more U.S. military veterans, many of whom are unemployed. She argued that employers, especially nonprofits, too often miss the value of military service on a résumé, and that in their previous careers, former members of the armed forces needed to have the skills of diplomats, aid workers, educators, and mediators all rolled into one. Like volunteers and NGO workers, “for these folks, service is the air they breathe,” she said. “It’s the reason they were put on this earth.”
The topic had unmistakable hometown appeal, despite her international audience. It deftly tugged at the patriotism and the heartstrings of a country frustrated about lingering unemployment. Obama will surely return to the theme as she makes stops across the country in the coming weeks, supporting Democrats in Wisconsin, Colorado, Washington state, California, and Illinois. And as she delivered Thursday’s keynote, it seemed likely that she would impress those crowds equally.
Her cadence echoed her husband’s. She turned with ease between two transparent teleprompters, pausing to smile or to emphasize a point. “Government can only do so much,” she said, appealing to charitable leaders in the room while also defusing criticisms of her husband’s administration for trying to do too much.
The president said his wife “doesn’t think about what the polls say or who gets the best headlines in the paper,” but rather “who are we helping?” These days, the answer to that question may include congressional Democrats. But if Michelle Obama keeps talking about jobs for veterans—among the safest topics politicians can tackle—voters will love her all the same.