Opinion: Michelle Obama still going high when they go low

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks during the 2016 Democratic National Convention
First Lady Michelle Obama speaks during the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

How do you hold a political convention on a flat TV screen, enervated, deprived of people in three dimensions, whether it be impassioned speakers or crowds of delegates in their goofy hats and lanyard IDs? How do you make it feel not like an infomercial but like an event?

You get Michelle Obama to speak.

To many in her party, she’s already the patron saint, the rabbi, the shaman, the fairy godmother of Democratic politics — at least partially because she stays above the political fray. Look, I’m not one of her acolytes. And she has many — the folks who paid hundreds of dollars to hear her speak at one of the events for her mega-selling memoir. That’s not me.

But she is an unerring moral compass for the Democratic Party and, I dare say, the entire nation. Four years ago at the Democratic National Convention, she memorably explained what she and then-President Barack Obama told their daughters about how to respond to bullies, saying, “When they go low, we go high.” People cheered, never dreaming that going low would mean anything beyond a nasty campaign and certainly not four years of a toxic presidency.

So here we are, four years later, reduced to a convention first night that felt part telethon, part PBS documentary, and Michelle Obama just knocked it out of the TV set, the computer screen, the smart phone. She basically told the American people that if they care at all about decency and morality and each other, they need a new president.


“This job is hard,” the former first lady who had a front-row seat to the job, said. “It requires clear-headed judgment, a mastery of complex and competing issues, a devotion to facts and history, a moral compass, and an ability to listen — and an abiding belief that each of the 330 million lives in this country has meaning and worth.” She didn’t need to say how she felt about how the incumbent president measured up.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s prepared remarks for the first day of the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 17, 2020.

Aug. 18, 2020

Like a cross between a lawyer making her closing argument and a mother explaining why she’s not letting her 16-year-old daughter go on a cross-country road trip with a high school dropout who says he’s going to L.A to be a rock star, she put it bluntly: “You simply cannot fake your way through this job. As I said before, being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.”

And if that didn’t grab you and make you rethink your life, she added this: “Well, a presidential election can reveal who we are, too. And four years ago, too many people chose to believe their votes didn’t matter. Maybe they were fed up. Maybe they thought the outcome wouldn’t be close.… Whatever the reason, in the end those choices sent someone to the Oval Office who lost the national popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. In one of the states that determined the outcome, the winning margin averaged out to just two votes per precinct — two votes. And we’ve all been living with the consequences.”

In one fell swoop she explained what was wrong with President Trump — and what was wrong-headed about the people who stayed home and didn’t vote. And she did it without chastising.

“So let me be as honest and clear as I can,” she said later. “Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country…. He is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He cannot be who we want him to be.”

There was something so poignant about that — as if this were all just a huge mistake on the voters’ part and Trump’s as well. So now, let’s fix it.


“If you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this: If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can, and they will if we don’t make a change in this election. If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”

Oh, and that advice about going high? It still applies, Obama said, explaining that “when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else. We degrade ourselves. We degrade the very causes for which we fight.”

But that doesn’t mean “saying nice things when confronted with viciousness and cruelty,” she added. “Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation under God, and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences.”

It didn’t feel like the first night of a political convention. But in this strange, disconnected world of the pandemic, Obama at least gave it a star turn.