Heilemann on Michelle Obama’s Stunning Speech

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The opening session of the Democratic National Convention was designed to be, in effect, coalition night, with a lineup of speakers reflecting the assemblage of voting blocs that constitute Barack Obama's base. Representing Hispanics, there would be San Antonio mayor and keynoter Julian Castro and congressman Xavier Becerra; representing African-Americans, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, Newark mayor Cory Booker, and Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx; and representing women, HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth, and Lilly Ledbetter. And then there would be Michelle Obama, not only covering those last two constituencies simultaneously but doing much (much) more besides.

As it unfolded, coalition night was successful as such and in many other respects. But what it will be — and should be — remembered for was the First Lady's speech, which I can say without risk of exaggeration was one of the most extraordinary convention turns I have witnessed in more than two decades in this racket.

In this assessment, Impolitic finds himself part of a wide and bipartisan consensus. But not only in this assessment. In fact, on any number of salient points, pretty much the entirety of the political-media class — left, right, and center — here in the Queen City is in broad agreement.

This first is that, by comparison with the Republican jamboree in Tampa last week, the Democratic shindig in Charlotte is a better orchestrated, more enthusiastic, and more strategically coherent affair. (For anyone wondering, the national affairs desk was indeed on the ground in the Big Guava but not fully operational, as Impolitic was consumed with the task of wrestling this ungainly alligator to the ground.) Every speech uncorked last night inside the Time Warner Cable Arena served a consistent and well-defined purpose: to puff up Obama, stick the shiv into Mitt Romney, and clarify the choice between competing visions and values that the Democrats argue the election represents.

Castro's address illustrated this point, as well as the contrast between the two conventions, fairly vividly — and the reaction to it formed a second point of broad consensus. Whereas Chris Christie's effort in the same slot was roundly, loudly, and correctly pilloried as an exercise in self-servitude as opposed to a ratification of Romney or a reinforcement of his message, Castro's was an ode to Obama. It was rousing, at times funny, and included a metaphor that perfectly encapsulated a key Democratic theme (and that also happened to be a subtle shot at Paul Ryan's recent overstatements about his prowess as a runner in his youth): "The American dream is not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay." And while Castro's keynote wasn't inspiring or transcendent enough to catapult him into the political stratosphere the way Obama's did in 2004, those who had touted the 37-year-old as a talent with the potential to become the first Latino governor of Texas saw their praise vindicated. By any metric, it was a highly polished and entirely auspicious national debut.

For Michelle Obama, of course, it was no such thing. Her own high-stakes debut came four years ago at the Democratic convention in Denver, in a speech that sought to dispel the negative impressions of her — as a haughty, aggrieved, and even angry black woman — that had been propagated in some quarters. And so it did, and then some. Since then, MRO's public image has been pure gold; with an approval rating of 66 percent, she is more popular than her husband (and any other Democrat save the Clintons) by a mile.

And yet, for all that, what no one could have fully appreciated was how much she has grown and the heights she has attained as a political performer — until last night, that is. Purely at the level of stage presence and oratorical execution, Michelle was close to flawless: warm and natural, charming and convincing, passionate and pitch-perfect, giving off such a natural and comfortable affect that it was almost possible to forget that she was, you know, performing.

But Michelle's speech was remarkable on countless other levels, too. In the stories she told of her humble roots and her and Barack's salad days ("Our combined monthly student loan bills were actually higher than our mortgage; we were so young, so in love, and so in debt"), she presented a powerful contrast with the privilege of the Romneys. In the testaments to her husband's character, she both vouched for and humanized him. In her substantive comments ("[The president] believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care"], she defended him on policy and appealed to key segments of the electorate. In her obvious devotion to her kids ("My most important title is mom-in-chief"), she rooted herself in centrist, and even conservative, values. With the powerful anecdotes she unfurled — about how, for example, her MS-stricken father would "wake up with a smile, grab his walker, prop himself up against the bathroom sink, and slowly shave and button his uniform" — she went beyond exposition to illustration, beyond telling to showing. And in so doing, she not only demonstrated just how overrated Ann Romney's decent but unexceptional speech last week in Tampa was, but established a degree of emotional resonance so rare in politics that it's generally considered foolish even to aim for.

When it was over, Mark Kleiman quipped, "I think the president is the second-best speaker in the household." And while he may have been joking (or at least half-joking), there can be no disputing that Michelle raised the bar. And not just for her husband but the guy who will take center stage tonight — and who knows a thing or two about giving a speech and, even more, about rising to a challenge.