WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama had one message for Americans at Monday night’s Democratic National Convention: “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can; and they will if we don’t make a change in this election.” It was a dire warning, but it captured the essence of a speech filled with bleak imagery and painful reality.
The former first lady painted a picture of what she said young people, including her two daughters, see around them in America today.
“They see people shouting in grocery stores, unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe,” said Obama, in the prerecorded speech. “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.
“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,” said Obama.
“Sadly, this is the America that is on display for the next generation,” she said. “That’s not just disappointing; it’s downright infuriating.”
Obama has long been admired on both sides of the aisle for her ability to deliver inspiring and motivating political speeches. To this day, she remains one of the most sought after campaign surrogates in all of politics.
But if viewers tuned into the Democratic convention Monday expecting to see the same warm, welcoming, “Mom-in-chief” version of Michelle Obama that they had grown accustomed to during Obama’s eight years in the White House, they were in for a wake-up call.
Obama herself seemed to acknowledge this, describing how she reframes one of her best known phrases, “when they go low, we go high,” when people ask her today how to “go high” in the face of a president like Donald Trump.
“Going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top,” Obama said.
“Going high means standing fierce against hatred … And going high means unlocking the shackles of lies and mistrust with the only thing that can truly set us free: the cold hard truth.”
The purpose of the Democratic convention all this week is to nominate, and ostensibly celebrate, the party’s presidential ticket of former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris. But Obama didn’t even mention Biden until halfway into her speech.
After praising Biden for his empathy and fortitude, Obama said, “Now, Joe is not perfect. And he’d be the first to tell you that. But there is no perfect candidate, no perfect president.”
Even more striking was that Obama didn’t mention Harris at all, or the fact that Harris is the first Black woman ever nominated to a major party ticket.
To be sure, Democratic strategists and Biden advisers have said repeatedly that they plan to keep the focus squarely on Trump, even if it means paying less attention than one might expect to the party’s own nominees. And that may well have been the thinking behind Obama’s decision not to mention Harris.
Nonetheless, it was surprising that a trailblazing Black woman in politics like Obama would not so much as acknowledge the historic nature of Biden’s vice presidential pick.
Instead, Obama warned that voter suppression tactics are already underway. “Right now, folks who know they cannot win fair and square at the ballot box are doing everything they can to stop us from voting. They’re closing down polling places in minority neighborhoods. They’re purging voter rolls. They’re sending people out to intimidate voters, and they’re lying about the security of our ballots,” she said.
Her warning echoed remarks her husband, former President Barack Obama, had made about voter suppression during his recent eulogy for the late civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (Ga.).
“If we want to keep the possibility of progress alive in our time, if we want to be able to look our children in the eye after this election, we have got to reassert our place in American history,” Obama said in the last lines of her speech. “And we have got to do everything we can to elect my friend, Joe Biden, as the next president of the United States.”
Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver the convention keynote on Tuesday.