For the most part, the first night of the Democratic Presidential Convention had the look and feel of a public-access telethon, with shaky-voiced speakers, streamed from desktop cameras that were just out of focus, all but offering viewers a free tote bag if they pledged their support for the party.
Then Michelle Obama began speaking.
The former first lady, the sole speaker out of more than two hours of programming who seemed at complete ease with the convention’s unprecedented all-digital format, delivered a powerful indictment of President Donald Trump’s presidency as unworthy of one of the most difficult moments in American history, calling the president a failure “not simply on matters of policy but on matters of character.”
“Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head,” Obama said in pre-taped remarks that closed out the first night of the convention. “He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.”
Obama acknowledged that it has become harder to defend her famous 2016 convention speech in recent years, as voters have pressed her on whether the idea that “when they go low, we go high” has a place in the Trump era.
“Going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else,” Obama said. “But let’s be clear: Going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountaintop. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation, under God, and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences.”
The former first lady, one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful surrogates, only mentioned Trump by name a single time in her address but drew an explicit contrast between the “downright infuriating” man she believes is in “over his head” and the man who seeks to replace him in the White House.
“Joe is not perfect, and he’d be the first to tell you that,” Obama said of former Vice President Joe Biden. “But there is no perfect candidate, no perfect president. And his ability to learn and grow—we find in that the kind of humility and maturity that so many of us yearn for right now.”
Obama, wearing a charm necklace that spelled out the word “VOTE,” made the evening’s most explicit call for Democrats to fight against voter suppression, calling on voters to “grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown-bag dinner and maybe breakfast too” in order to ensure that Trump’s threats against mail-in voting do not discourage participation in the election.
“This is not the time to withhold our votes in protest or play games with candidates who have no chance of winning,” Obama said, cautioning against protest voting and encouraging voters to request their absentee ballots “tonight.”
“If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can and they will if we do not change things in this election,” Obama said, calling on Democrats to vote “like our lives depend on it.”
Closing out her remarks with a focus on the goodness of America—in keeping with Biden’s pledge to “restore the soul of this nation”—Obama highlighted the sacrifices of medical staff, essential workers, and all “compassionate, resilient, decent people whose fortunes are bound up with one another.”
“It is well past time for our leaders to once again reflect our truth,” Obama said.