What mattered most about Michelle Obama’s convention speech is not that she served as her husband’s character witness, but that she not-so-subliminally and oh-so-successfully skewered her husband’s Republican challenger – and did so with a smile.
And all the while, I found myself thinking about how we’ve come a long way from the days when First Ladies were seen and rarely heard. Nobody ever asked Bess Truman to deliver a showstopper on behalf of beleaguered husband Harry back in 1948. Heck, traditional First Ladies felt that their prime job was simply to persevere; as Bess herself once said, “We are not any of us happy to be where we are, but there’s nothing to be done about it.”Michelle has had her own trials, of course – like being slimed by the usual suspects as an Angry Black Woman – but these days, with her 66 percent Gallup approval rating, she has the wind at her back. And she took full advantage last night. In the rhetorical battle of first spouses, she blew away Ann Romney, all the way to the Cayman Islands.Her first task was to vet her husband’s character and humble roots, to remind everyone that he wasn’t born at Harvard, to make him relatable to the average Joe. So she gave us lines like this: Obama is still “the guy who picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by in a hole in the passenger side door. He was the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he’d found in a dumpster, and whose only pair of decent shoes was half a size too small.” And this: “Barack was raised by a single mom who struggled to pay bills and by grandparents who stepped in when she needed help.” And this: “When we were first married, our combined monthly student loan bill was actually higher than our mortgage. We were so young, so in love, and so in debt.” And this: “He is the same man, when our girls were first born, (who) would anxiously check their cribs every few minutes to ensure they were still breathing….You see, that’s the man who sits down with me and our girls for dinner nearly every night, patiently answering questions about issues in the news, strategizing about middle school friendships.”It strikes me as a sign of political weakness, however, that Michelle had to perform this task at all. Obama was fulsomely introduced to the country four years ago – his Kansas roots, his humble beginnings, his struggling mom, his courting of Michelle – and yet, the president’s re-election team felt it was necessary to have the First Lady humanize him anew and attest yet again to his relatability.Why is that? Because, even to many Democrats, he seems too insular and aloof – and if ill-enthused Democrats are going to be sufficiently stoked for November, they need to feel more viscerally connected. Hence, Michelle’s humanization pitch, her insistence that he’s still the same guy who Democrats embraced in 2008. Hence her insistence that Democrats, in the autumn campaign, “must work like never before.”But she didn’t just defend her man. More importantly, she compared the “values” of the Obama family to the Romney/Republican mindset. She did it without ever mentioning Romney by name. These passages constituted the meat of the speech.There’s nothing wrong with financial success, she said, but other values are far more important: “Like so many American families, our families weren’t asking for much. They didn’t begrudge anyone else’s success or care that others had much more than they did . . . We learned about dignity and decency. That how hard you work matters more than how much you make. That helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself.”And this: “We learned about gratitude and humility. That so many people had a hand in our success from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean.” (Translation: No, we didn’t Build It on our own. Everybody helped.)And this: “(Obama) believes that when you’ve work hard and done well and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. No, you reach back and you give other folks the same chances that help you succeed . . . Because for Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make. It is about the difference you make in people’s lives.” (Translation: Republicans believe that individual gumption trumps all, that financial success in itself deserves to be celebrated – whereas the president believes that we also have an obligation to each other.)Michelle’s speech was also laced with a string of shout-outs to women’s issues – as befitting the main theme of the evening, and the party’s urgent need to benefit from the gender gap – and, naturally, right-wing commentator Eric Erickson felt compelled to tweet, “First night of the Vagina Monologues in Charlotte going as expected.” That condescending mentality is why Republicans lose the women’s vote in virtually every presidential election.But we were talking about Michelle. And yes, how far these First Ladies have come. None of them even attended a convention until Nellie Taft showed up in 1912 – and she made her splash by crashing the opposition party’s bash. As wife of the Republican incumbent, she wangled a front row seat at the Democratic convention and intimidated the speakers into toning down their rhetoric against her William. I doubt that even Michelle could’ve worked such magic at last week’s GOP event, but at minimum the Republican women surely would have suffered some serious arm-envy.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1