“Get ready, tonight…Gonna make this a night to remember”
With the strains of the 1970’s R&B group Shalamar’s hit “A Night to Remember” pumping through the sound system of the Time Warner Cable Arena last night, the assembled delegates of the Democratic National Convention were primed and ready to hear from First Lady Michelle Obama. And she did not disappoint. On a night that the Democrats put women front and center, Mrs. Obama strode to the platform the picture of confidence and grace, and masterfully delivered a soliloquy on the merits of the Obama administration from a personal perspective, and made a strong case for the President’s re-election.
At a minimum the First Lady was charged with responding to the Republicans vision of female contentment that was paraded across the stage in Tampa Bay during the GOP convention one week ago; and most importantly Mrs. Obama had to serve as a rebuttal to the spouse of the Republican nominee. Michelle Obama did that and much more. In what can only be described as a masterfully written speech, and a poignant delivery, she weaved the story of the Obama family into that of the American family and reduced the complexity of public policy into the daily struggles of average Americans. The First Lady, without ever mentioning Mitt Romney by name or referencing the opposition party, put in stark terms the differences between the two parties and the choice before the nation.
What was striking about the First Lady’s speech last night was the underlying theme of ‘leadership’ that was embedded throughout her address. Mrs. Obama spoke of the President as leader of the nation, “being President doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are,” and the President as father and husband. It was a celebration of the best of the American family; compassionate, caring and focused not on personal enrichment but serving others. It was a message in stark contrast to the celebration of excess that was on display in Tampa Bay when the Republicans sought to define the Romney candidacy and may have reinforced the negative perception of Mr. Romney, the politician and businessman. The difference between the speeches of Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Romney is that upon hearing the two women most Americans are more likely to identify with the story of the President’s beat-the-odds life than that of the privileged, wealthy son of a wealthy corporate titan.
The First Lady cut straight to the issue of gender inequality and wasted no time laying waste to the Republican’s nostalgic view of womanhood when she referenced health care reform and said to thunderous applause, “And he believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care…that’s what my husband stands for.” It was the dagger of the night, coming just one week after Mrs. Romney painted a picture of docility and Republican senatorial candidate Todd Akin found a way to make rape legitimate when speaking on abortion. While Mrs. Romney’s moment in the spotlight came off as scripted and privileged warmth, the First Lady was the symbol of the modern American woman – smart, caring and capable of controlling her own destiny. If there was a gender gap in support between the two candidates before last night, there should be a canyon separating the two candidates in the minds of women today.
Perhaps the most telling part of Mrs. Obama’s speech last night was when she spoke passionately about the President as her spouse and father of her children. It was the one moment in the speech when she was visibly moved, as were delegates in the arena, many of whom were caught wiping tears from their eyes. It was a particularly powerful moment for African-American families; as Blacks have empathized with what they know is the tremendous burden upon the Obamas as the first Black occupants of the White House. African-Americans have felt the burden, worried about the security of the First Family, and identified with the President’s struggles during his first term. So when Mrs. Obama exclaimed “So when people ask me whether being in the White House has changed my husband, I can honestly say that when it comes to his character, and his convictions, and his heart, Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago” it hit home. It was a moment of sincerity that affirmed what many of the President’s African-American supporters have felt and sensed about the first couple. It was Black love on display before the nation in a way not seen on the nightly news and the outrageousness of “reality” television.
Mrs. Obama successfully conveyed compassion and empathy with the American family, and painted a picture of hope for a better tomorrow. She proclaimed, “And if our parents and grandparents could toil and struggle for us…if they could raise beams of steel to the sky, send a man to the moon, and connect the world with the touch of a button…then surely we can keep on sacrificing and building for our own kids and grandkids.” It was the part of the speech that in the parlance of the Black faith experience, Mrs. Obama opened the doors of the church and had altar call. “If farmers and blacksmiths could win independence from an empire…if immigrants could leave behind everything they knew for a better life on our shores…if women could be dragged to jail for seeking the vote…if a generation could defeat a depression, and define greatness for all time…if a young preacher could lift us to the mountaintop with his righteous dream…and if proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American Dream.” She made clear that in an America with President Obama in the White House there is room for everybody.
Now comes the hard part for Democrats for the remainder of their convention. Mrs. Obama raised the bar last night and all who follow, including the President, have a tall order in trying to match the First Lady’s eloquence and vision that was on display last night.
Photo Credit: Democratic National Convention Committee