We already know Michelle Obama is one of the most beloved people in the world. But her keynote speech closing out the first night of the Democratic National Convention on Monday solidified her legacy as one of America’s more masterful orators. While the convention had to be reinvented and adjusted to fit the constraints of a pandemic, which could have easily been under control by now, this new and fully digital format was no problem for the former first lady who delivered a searing critique of the current president’s handling of well ... pretty much everything.
This new and fully digital format was no problem for the former first lady who delivered a searing critique of the current president’s handling of well ... pretty much everything.
Her entire speech was, in essence, a subtweet. While President Donald Trump was the focus of nearly every single zinger, Obama barely even bothered to mention his name. As she listed the magnitude of the responsibilities and duties of a president, things she witnessed firsthand for eight years, she pointed out that “being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are.”
As Obama urged for racial justice honoring the lives of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, she remarked that “the simple fact that a Black life matters is still met with derision from the nation’s highest office.” Even when talking about the value of empathy, one of Trump’s most well-known blind spots, she never made it about him. Because her speech wasn’t about him, it was about us.
Four years ago, Obama was quoted as saying, “when they go low, we go high.” It has become one of her most famous sayings, but many if not most people repeating it misinterpret her point. The main takeaway is not that we need to put on a smile when we see injustice, she said. Going high actually means taking “the harder path.” Last night, she corrected the record not just for herself, but for countless other female leaders. And she once again demonstrated that a more compassionate kind of leadership is not weak or ineffective, but brave and results driven.
And she’s not wrong. Compassionate leaders have consistently handled the COVID-19 crisis better — and perhaps not coincidentally, many of these leaders happen to be women. Meanwhile, alpha-men famous for their lack of empathy have repeatedly failed in their response to the worst pandemic in a century.
At times, Obama’s message felt less like a political speech, and more like a staged and necessary intervention for a nation that had lost its way. “This is not who we want to be,” the former first lady declared as she listed individual and collective acts of chaos and division. Her tone was compassionate yet firm, rooted in a love for America so great (something her detractors systemically accused her of not possessing) that despite all the ugliness, she was still holding on to the nation’s potential, not its current disintegration. She’s the friend who despite having witnessed the worst in you refuses to let go of what you could become.
In other words, Obama is the friend America doesn’t deserve, but desperately needs. At a time where many feel apathetic politically, depressed personally (including the former first lady herself), and that we are seeing a worrying spike in suicidal ideation amongst young people, her speech was the social-distance hug many Americans needed. It was a pat on the back from the friend who challenges you to be your best self, but will also fight for you and alongside you while you pick up the pieces.
And in classic Obama fashion, her class was tempered by a healthy dose of shade. In perhaps the most memorable part of her speech, one of the rare moments where she addressed Trump directly, Obama reclaimed the president’s own language dismissing the number of deaths from COVID-19, declaring "Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country ... it is what it is." As MSNBC host Joy Reid noted, the message was clear: “this job is too hard for you.”
Last night, Obama spoke directly to Trump and her message was clear: it’s not America, it’s you. And judging by Trump’s incoherent response this morning, where he both “celebrated feminism” while attacking one of its most visible figureheads, he proved her right. Sadly, it feels like one of the best Democratic presidential candidates didn’t even run in 2020. It is what it is.