Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders delivered the two most effective speeches on the first night of the Democratic National Convention, taking very different angles. Sanders spoke as the leader of one faction within the Democratic Party, making the case for his supporters to unify behind Biden. He emphasized the danger Donald Trump poses to American democracy, which requires a popular front of opposition that runs from progressives to moderates and even includes conservatives.
If Sanders made the political case against Trump, Michelle Obama focused on the moral case. This was hardly surprising, since she is notorious for her dislike of politics. Further, her previous position as first lady was an essentially nonpolitical one. To be sure, there have been first ladies with strong political profiles, notably Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton. But unlike Roosevelt or Clinton, Obama has been chary of using her stature for overtly partisan or ideological goals.
Michelle Obama practices the politics of anti-politics, which allows her words to reach people who tune out normal political discourse. “You know I hate politics,” she explained in her pretaped speech. “But you also know that I care about this nation. You know how much I care about all of our children.” Caring for children is, of course, a quality that transcends partisanship.
Not to say she’s been completely apolitical. Rather, she’s held back from political battles until her involvement was necessary. As former Barack Obama aide David Axelrod notes, “Because she is not a politician and doesn’t think or speak like one, @MicheleObama is such a powerful communicator. As she is showing again here, she speaks with a moral authority few in public life can summon.”
It’s exactly that “moral authority” that Obama brought to bear in her speech, which was focused not on Trump’s policy failures but on his lack of the human qualities that are needed in a leader.
The major theme of her speech was empathy, again a quality that is separate from party affiliation: “Empathy: that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately,” Obama reflected. “The ability to walk in someone else’s shoes; the recognition that someone else’s experience has value, too.”
According to Obama, Trump’s personal lack of empathy was changing American society:
They see people shouting in grocery stores, unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe. They see people calling the police on folks minding their own business just because of the color of their skin. They see an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good, and winning is everything because as long as you come out on top, it doesn’t matter what happens to everyone else. And they see what happens when that lack of empathy is ginned up into outright disdain.
They see our leaders labeling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening torch-bearing white supremacists. They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown into cages, and pepper spray and rubber bullets are used on peaceful protestors for a photo-op.
The speech earned surprisingly positive reviews from Dana Perino and Chris Wallace on Fox News. “You got the sense when you talk about authenticity, she has it in spades. She has that voice, she has clarity, and she knows what she is out there wanting to do,” Perino enthused.
Wallace emphatically agreed: “She really flayed, sliced, and diced Donald Trump talking about the chaos and confusion and lack of empathy, especially coming from this president and this White House, spoke more about the deficits of Donald Trump than the pluses of Joe Biden, but did talk about especially, not so much policies, but especially his empathy and what he has been through and his care for average Americans.”
It could be argued that the moral case against Trump was already made in 2016 and didn’t convince enough voters. There’s an element of truth in this argument, in the sense that a moral argument might not be sufficient. But Michelle Obama isn’t the only speaker in the convention. Other speakers like Sanders are on hand to flay Trump’s policies. The moral argument is one arrow in the quiver, and there is no one better able to deliver it than Michelle Obama. The former first lady did what she had to do.