Michelle Obama roused the Democratic convention on Tuesday night with a soft-spoken address that tied her modest upbringing and that of her husband to the values that have guided him as president.
In a well-paced, well-packaged opening night that avoided any Clint Eastwood moments, the first lady made a low-key but effective pitch that included this crowd-pleasing line: “Women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and health care.”
Avoiding the pungent language of other speakers, she weaved a narrative of biography and policy as she concluded, “Barack Obama knows the American Dream because he’s lived it.”
Michelle Obama took the tack of lowering her voice, perhaps prompting people to listen more intently, her soft cadence at times drowned out by chants of “Four more years!”
Earlier in the evening there were rhetorical excesses, with thundering accusations that Mitt Romney doesn’t care about middle-class jobs or women’s rights, matching some of the over-the-top accusations at the Republican convention.
The first lady spoke on a night when the Democrats unveiled a rainbow coalition of speakers in an obvious effort to showcase the diversity that was lacking in Tampa, where most of the delegates were white.
From Lily Ledbetter, for whom the equal pay for women law is named, to Tammy Duckworth, the congressional candidate who lost both legs in Iraq, the party tried to stitch together a lineup that would both appeal to selected interest groups and tug at emotional heartstrings.
The Democrats also trotted out Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, whose rip-roaring speech said the president had “saved the American economy from full-blown depression” and should not be “bullied out of office.” Keynoter Julian Castro, the San Antonio mayor, touched the Hispanic base and declared that Romney “doesn’t get it.” Even a tribute to Ted Kennedy pleased the crowd by playing clips of Romney in his losing 1994 race against the late senator.
If the lusty cheers in the Time Warner Cable Arena were any indication, these speakers fired up the base. But they were merely the warm-up act for Michelle Obama.
The first lady’s task was far different than in 2008, when she was still struggling to dispel the image of a resentful black woman who hadn’t been proud of her country. Then, she had to vouch for a husband who was riding a wave of cultural enthusiasm but who was still smarting from attacks by Hillary Clinton that he was just an orator. If his wife said he had smelly socks, she made the candidate appear more of a down-to-earth family man.
This time around, Michelle Obama is the most popular woman in the country, a fashion icon and nutrition enthusiast who draws no harsher criticism than that she sometimes seems like a national nanny. We are all exceedingly familiar with her husband’s tics and traits, his cool reserve and passive leadership style. Her challenge, then, was to talk about his values.
Obama reminded people of Barack’s role as dad-in-chief, saying that when he first ran, “like any mother, I was worried about what it would mean for our girls.” Obama reminded the television audience that they both came from families of modest means, perhaps drawing a subtle contrast with Romney, the son of a governor and auto executive. She talked about her father, afflicted with multiple sclerosis, who nevertheless managed to support the family. She repeated the well-known saga of how her husband was raised by his mother and grandparents.
In the end, Michelle Obama delivered the testimonial that only a wife can: “I see the concern in his eyes and hear the determination in his voice.”
It was well crafted, nearly perfect, and perhaps reminded people disappointed in this presidency what they believed in back in 2008.