CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Michelle Obama wrapped her husband in the warm embrace of what she described as an ever-growing love. That may be the indelible moment from her speech to the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday. But what was extraordinary about the 25-minute performance — which had Democrats here rising repeatedly in affirmation — was the way the first lady delivered a series of rapier thrusts at unnamed others, who she suggested did not have the president’s moral core.
Without ever mentioning Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan or Republicans in general, Mrs. Obama nevertheless drew a fiercely critical portrait of the anonymous foes, who she said did not come from common roots, did not have a guiding philosophy and who fixated on money, rather than the good of their fellow men.
If Ann Romney was a pleasant, even charming, political wife in her appearance last week at the Republican National Convention — occasionally giggling and talking about her love of baking — America saw in her Democratic opposite a tremendously gifted political dynamo.
Michelle Obama spoke with the warmth of Oprah Winfrey and the authority of Hillary Clinton. She presented herself, No. 1, as a caring wife and mother. But anyone paying attention ended the night realizing that she is far and away Obama’s most powerful spokesperson. That holds true, even when counting the president himself.
The principal narrative of her nationally televised speech was about President Obama’s ability to maintain his ideals, and even his gentle touch as a father, despite the heavy strains of office, but the none-too-subtle subtext walloped the Republican she would not name.
“When people ask me whether being in the White House has changed my husband,” Obama said in her speech, “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.”
After speaking about the “honor” and “privilege” of serving as first lady and how much she saw President Obama labor over moving letters from constituents, the onetime corporate attorney delivered a series of haymakers aimed straight at the wealthy venture capitalist who wants her husband’s job.
She went to lengths to describe the modest surroundings in which both she and President Obama (“raised by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills”) were raised, going so far as to mention the “little apartment” in which she grew up. She described how her parents, and the grandparents who raised Obama, stressed values other than material gain.
“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,” she said, hinting by omission that not everyone had such values.
“We learned about honesty and integrity — that the truth matters ... that you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules ... and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square.”
A sweet smile hardly left Obama’s face, as she quickly and gently thrust the blade in, then moved back to the better world her husband would surely build.
Democrats for months have been attacking Romney with repeated ads suggesting that he laid off workers, sent jobs overseas and maintained shadowy foreign investments so he could get ahead, all the while paying little heed to the little people who lost jobs and health insurance while he made millions of dollars.
Romney’s team has offered its own testimonial defenses, but the first lady painted a different picture of some Americans of privilege.
The Democratic president and his party have been accused of not valuing entrepreneurship and demeaning those who have succeeded. Michelle Obama had a line that attempted to inoculate her family from that charge, too.
Never mentioning the Republicans, she said her family and Obama’s “didn’t begrudge anyone else’s success or care that others had much more than they did ... in fact, they admired it.”
While heaping praise on her husband — “still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago” — Obama still got a few more shots in at the unnamed other figure — one who might not understand “it’s not about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.” One who didn’t seem to understand that tough decisions require moral fiber, that “no amount of data or numbers will get you to the right answer.”
Romney’s use of data to drive his success at Bain Capital and even as governor of Massachusetts has been a frequent theme.
The first lady would end with soaring rhetoric about the American Dream and pressing on for her daughters, so they could grow up in a country where they could still sense “limitless possibility.” But she had clearly made her case against the Other Guy, too.
Near the end of her address, she talked about President Obama reading letters from constituents and being deeply moved. Her husband, she said, would tell her: “ ‘You won’t believe what these folks are going through, Michelle.... It’s not right. We’ve got to keep working to fix this. We’ve got so much more to do.”
With that, the crowd began chanting “Four more years!” And the president’s No. 1 weapon would soon walk offstage, possibly having moved her husband, if only a little, closer to that goal.