CHARLOTTE — Michelle Obama’s convention message was simple: Barack Obama understands the hardships of working Americans. He’s been there himself.
“For Barack, these issues aren’t political, they’re personal because Barack knows what it means when a family struggles,” she said.
The first lady used the word “struggle” or a variation seven times throughout the speech, much of which was an extended retelling of the Obamas’ pre-politics biography, with a special emphasis on the leaner moments before they made it big.
On the president’s upbringing: “Barack was raised by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills, and by grandparents who stepped in when she needed help.”
On their courtship: “He was the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he’d found in a dumpster, and whose only pair of decent shoes was half a size too small.”
On their marriage: “Believe it or not, when we were first married, our combined monthly student loan bills were actually higher than our mortgage. We were so young, so in love — and so in debt.”
The subtext was that wealthy scion Mitt Romney had no such connection to the average American. But the first lady, whose strong popularity comes in part from her avoidance of hard-nosed politics, focused her speech solely on describing her husband’s humble roots and character. There were plenty of more partisan speakers, like the firebrand Ted Strickland or keynote speaker Julian Castro, to make the Romney connection explicit.
Romney’s name may have never come up in the first lady’s speech once, but it was impossible to miss the message when she described learning from her parents that “you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules — and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square,” or that “helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself.”
“[Obama] believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity you do not slam it shut behind you,” she said at one point. “You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
Throughout her speech, Michelle Obama portrayed her husband as someone who didn’t just know what it was like to be down and out, but someone who had enacted his major policies specifically because of it. She singled out health care reform in particular, of which she said, “He didn’t care whether it was the easy thing to do politically — that’s not how he was raised — he cared that it was the right thing to do.”
“Barack knows the American dream because he’s lived it,” she said. “And he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love.”
Watch the full video below:
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.