Columns » Jay Barth

Michelle Obama: still who she was

I had the good fortune to see Michelle Obama fairly early in her public life.

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SIMON DAVIS/DFID VIA CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Simon Davis/DFID via Creative Commons

I had the good fortune to see Michelle Obama fairly early in her public life. On New Year's Eve 2007, while in Iowa blogging for this publication in the lead-up to the 2008 caucuses, I trekked out to the little college town of Grinnell. Michelle Obama had an event at a retirement center a few blocks from the Grinnell College campus.

Michelle had stayed home with their young girls for most of the campaign to that point, but she came to Iowa to help close the deal for her husband. About 150 folks — mostly residents of the center, along with random Grinnell citizens and a few of us curious writers (I remember Maureen Dowd being there) — filled the community room. Thanks to C-SPAN, there's actually a clip of it.

Aside from her height (even in flats she towered above the audience), several things stood out about Michelle Obama that day. We saw a speaker who was decidedly more restrained than her husband, more a conversationalist than a barn-burning stump speaker. Probably driven by her understandable nervousness as someone new to the national limelight, she smiled very little.

She did, however, draw more laughs than her husband (who has come to use his snarky humor well, but veered away from it at that stage of his career). Michelle's humor then exhibited a real edge, with Barack as the regular butt of her jokes. While Barack Obama kept his references to race implicit at the time, Michelle Obama was much more explicit. In the New Year's Eve talk, she attempted to sell her husband's racial background as a plus — that he "crosse[d] lines of race," that he brought with him the communitarian values of the African-American community where he organized, that his success would be emblematic of change, and that his election would send a message to the world that America has changed.

Finally, the theme of her talk was different from her husband's constant mantra of "hope." Instead, Michelle Obama emphasized the necessity of a rebirth of empathy in America. "Our souls are broken," she said, as a result of a culture in which our leaders had told us simply to worry about ourselves.

Her speech to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Monday was undoubtedly the best ever delivered in such a setting by a political spouse. Michelle Obama simultaneously showed how much has changed in those eight-plus years, and how little has. She is now at total ease on a national stage — decidedly more so than in her first convention speech in 2008 (now known as the "Melania speech") in which she showed nerves — with a smile that fills a convention hall. But the core of what she talks about and how she discusses it has remained constant. While Barack Obama, beginning with the March 2008 speech about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, eventually came to talk more explicitly about race than he did in those early days, Michelle Obama still discusses the topic in a way that feels less analytical and more real than the president's approach. There was an emotion in her talking about her "daughters, two beautiful and intelligent black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn" that would never be heard in the words of her more chill husband.

Michelle Obama's emphasis on empathy, and leaders' responsibility for fostering empathy, was at the core of her endorsement of Hillary Clinton. "I want a president who will teach our children that everyone in this country matters, a president who truly believes in the vision that our founders put forth all those years ago: That we are all created equal, each a beloved part of the great American story. And when crisis hits, we don't turn against each other — no, we listen to each other. We lean on each other. Because we are always stronger together."

At the end of the day, the fact that so little has changed in what she obviously cares most about since she entered the national stage is at the heart of Michelle Obama's authenticity. And that authenticity is what made her such a potent surrogate for Hillary Clinton Monday evening.

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