IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why Michelle Obama's DNC Speech Matters

As the general election enters its final months, Michelle Obama could continue to be a voice that cuts through the noise.
Image: Michelle Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia
First lady Michelle Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention.SCOTT AUDETTE / Reuters

First lady Michelle Obama's emotional and expertly delivered address at the Democratic National Convention on Monday is receiving near-universal praise, and it also may have more effectively made the case for Hillary Clinton's candidacy than the presumptive nominee has herself to date.

The Latest: Full Coverage of the DNC in Philadelphia

The first lady has come a long way from getting caricatured as an unpatriotic militant who engaged in "terrorist fist bumps." When her husband was seeking a first term as president in 2008, her approval rating was just 43 percent that summer, and there were some pundits who even viewed her as a liability for the ticket. But by the time President Obama was sworn in and in the years since, her popularity has skyrocketed (she's reached 79 percent approval), even as her husband's has fluctuated.

On Monday, Michelle Obama effectively marshaled that national goodwill to deliver a speech that was at turns both political and apolitical, that touched on race, partisanship, patriotism and feminism, all while rebuking the central theme of the Donald Trump candidacy: that the U.S. has lost its footing both at home and abroad and must be made "great" again.

Related: Michelle Obama Makes Emotional Appeal for Hillary Clinton

"[D}on't let anyone ever tell you that this country isn't great—that somehow we need to make it great again—because this right now is the greatest country on Earth," she told the audience. "And as my daughters prepare to set out into the world, I want a leader who is worthy of that truth."

But perhaps even more compelling was the first lady's direct attack on "birtherism," the far-right conspiracy theory that her husband is foreign-born and therefore illegitimate, which Trump used as a springboard to political prominence between 2011 and 2012.

In one of several subtle nods to America's uncomfortable and ongoing navigation of race matters, Michelle Obama acknowledged the toll that ugly rhetoric directed at her husband's heritage has had on her children. And she managed to spin even that harsh reality in a positive light, highlighting her family's resilience in the face of hate and linking America's narrative of social progress to the candidacy of Clinton.

"I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn," the first lady said. "And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States."

It was a sentiment that Clinton hasn't quite expressed, and for certain obvious reasons never could. And yet, the message was implicit in one of the Clinton campaign's most distinct 2016 advertisements -- which shows a montage of multicultural children watching Trump's most foul-mouthed and politically incorrect moments on the stump -- that Trump is not the kind of leader we want influencing the next generation of Americans. Clinton has also spoken about the importance of political role models for children.

But unlike that ad, and much of Clinton's efforts to steer the narrative of the campaign, with one nearly 15-minute speech, Michelle Obama may have moved the needle. She was the top trending topic on social media coming out of a contentious and compelling first day at the DNC. And if the reception to her popular appearances on late-night TV shows (and daytime, too) are any indication, Michelle Obama has the ability to create moments that can really go viral and reach an audience that isn't necessarily following every twist and turn of the presidential race.

"The first lady is one of the most popular public figures in America. She will be a highly effective messenger to kick off our convention and throughout the campaign ahead," Clinton campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri told NBC News in a statement. "She has been a role model to so many in her time as first lady, and few know better than her the importance of electing leaders who set the right example for our children and grandchildren."

Like most first ladies, besides her efforts to improve the quality and nutritional standards of school lunches, Michelle Obama isn't inexorably linked to her husband's policies. Although she has tirelessly campaigned on behalf of the president and has championed his signature domestic achievement -- the Affordable Care Act -- she has remained unscathed by any of her husband's more controversial positions or moments.

Instead, she has become, against the odds, a transcendent figure whose gravitas, sincerity and mainstream appeal are not in doubt when it comes to vast majority of American voters. And because she has repeatedly and forcefully expressed no desire to formally enter politics herself, she has been able to artfully sidestep being cordoned off in a partisan box.

As the general election enters its final months, Michelle Obama could continue to be a voice that cuts through the noise. And even though she is still subjected to the occasional mean tweet and tasteless parody, the rapturous reception she received on Monday suggests that hers is a voice that cannot be ignored.