With a graciousness that impressed critics and brought supporters to tears, Michelle Obama on Monday night gave a perfectly pitched convention speech that was a ringing endorsement of Hillary Clinton, a backhanded slap at Donald Trump, and a powerful reminder of the historic nature of her husband’s presidency.
Obama praised Clinton, her fellow Democrat, as the only qualified candidate in the race for the White House. But she also managed to deftly answer those who have attacked her husband, while assailing the bleak world view and coarse tone of the Republican presidential nominee.
She did this all with an overarching theme of what it is to be a parent living in the White House, and the challenges of keeping things as normal as possible for her two daughters, “the heart of our hearts.”
She shared a touching story about the first day she sent her children off to school in January 2009, after the Obamas moved into the White House: “I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns. And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, ‘What have we done?’”
Without bitterness, she segued into how she and her husband handled the extreme level of vitriol that they have experienced as first couple. Every president and first lady face vicious criticism; most of them, however, have not had to explain it to small children.
“That is what Barack and I think about every day,” Obama said, “as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight.
“How we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language that they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level.
“No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”
Obama has been the object of withering scorn from right-wing detractors who have slammed her efforts to get kids to eat healthy as nanny-state hectoring. She has been knocked for the price of her clothes or for the cost of her vacations. She has never publicly answered those attacks. That did not change on Monday.
Her job was to support the Democratic nominee, someone she has not always enjoyed an easy relationship with, particularly after the hard-fought 2008 Democratic primary.
“See, I trust Hillary to lead this country because I've seen her lifelong devotion to our nation's children,” Obama said. “Not just her own daughter, who she has raised to perfection, but every child who needs a champion….
"You see, Hillary has spent decades doing the relentless, thankless work to actually make a difference in their lives. Advocating for kids with disabilities as a young lawyer, fighting for children’s healthcare as first lady, and for quality child care in the Senate.”
Without saying his name, the first lady managed to zing the dystopian motto of the Republican nominee.
“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn't great,” Obama said. “Because right now this is the greatest country on earth.”
She also took a dig at his temperament.
“I want someone who understands that the issues the president faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters,” she said. “When you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military at your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out.”
Obama was at her most moving when she alluded to race, and the powerful message that a black family in the White House has sent to children, including, she noted, "the little black boy who looked up at my husband, his eyes wide with hope, and he wondered, ‘Is my hair like yours?’”
She appeared to tear up, as did many delegates, when she compared the groundbreaking nature of Clinton’s candidacy to her husband’s achievement as the first black president.
Breaking glass ceilings, she said, “is the story of this country … the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters, two beautiful and intelligent black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
President Obama approved of her speech.
As soon as she finished, he tweeted, “Incredible speech by an incredible woman. Couldn't be more proud & our country has been blessed to have her as FLOTUS. I love you, Michelle.”
7:57 a.m.: This article was updated with a link to a transcript of Michelle Obama’s speech.