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How Michelle Obama wrote Donald Trump out of the American narrative

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

In 2008, Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention came amid a storm of criticism. Her comment that her husband’s victories had left her proud of her country “for the first time in my adult life” still ricocheted around the press. Critics trotted out her undergraduate thesis on racism at Princeton as evidence of her radical beliefs. Rumors swirled that a mythical tape existed of her cursing “whitey,” rumors that the Clintons, among others, believed.

Her convention speech was meant to wipe that all away, to prove she loved America just as much as anybody else.

What a difference eight years makes.

Monday night, to rapturous applause in Philadelphia, Obama cast herself and her husband as defenders of American values. In 2008, she had to fight to define herself as patriotic; now she stood in the spotlight to sing the praises of American greatness. Donald Trump, she argued, is what she was once accused of being: an angry, divisive, unpatriotic outsider who doesn’t understand America and doesn’t deserve to lead it.

“Don't let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great,” Obama said at the climax of her speech. “That somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth. And as my daughters prepare to set out in the world, I want a leader who is worthy of that truth.”

She wasn’t there to rally the base. She didn’t even need to mention Trump’s name. Her goal was much bigger: She was there to claim the mantle of unifying American values — “not left or right,” “not Democrat or Republican” — just as her husband did 12 years ago in his own breakout speech. She positioned herself and Hillary Clinton in the mainstream, and Trump far outside it.

Michelle Obama claimed the mantle of family values

2008 Democratic National Convention: Day 4
The Obamas in 2008.
Chuck Kennedy-Pool/Getty Images

Whatever criticism Republicans have of the Obamas, it’s customary to agree that they’re good parents. And Obama leaned heavily on that, making an argument about family values and personal character rather than policy.

Republicans have practically trademarked the phrase “family values.” But despite several appearances from Donald Trump’s children, values-based arguments were practically absent at the Republican convention. The speech that came closest, Melania Trump’s, included several paragraphs lifted from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech — showing how successful Obama’s attempt to portray herself as an everyday American turned out to be.

In Philadelphia, Obama stepped into that gap. She argued that Americans were at their best when they were parents, and parenthood is what can bring people together: “That is how we have always moved this country forward, by all of us coming together on behalf of our children,” she said. “Volunteering to coach the team, teach the Sunday school class.”

Her speech was full of the images of children’s eyes, whether it was Malia and Sasha “pressed up against the window” on the way to their first day of school in Washington or “the little black boy who looked up at my husband, his eyes wide with hope,” before he touched the president’s hair.

“In this election, and every election, it is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives,” Obama said.

The core of her argument: Do you want your kids taking lessons from Donald Trump for the next four years?

Obama cast Clinton as the defender of American values

Obama’s argument for Clinton wasn’t about policy. It was about character.

“When I think about the kind of president that I want for my girls and all our children, that is what I want,” Obama said. “I want someone with the proven strength to persevere. Somebody who knows this job and takes it seriously. Somebody who understand that the issues of our nation are not black or white. It cannot be boiled down to 140 characters.”

The Clinton campaign has leaned hard on Clinton’s work for children. And they’ve already deployed the argument that Trump would be a terrible role model once, showing children’s faces as they listened to Trump speak in an ad that went viral on Facebook:

Obama combined those two themes, praising Clinton’s virtues: perseverance, hard work, grace under pressure.

“I trust Hillary to lead this country because I have seen her lifelong devotion to our nation’s children,” Obama said. “Not just her own daughter who she has raised to perfection. But every child who needs a champion.”

Obama put herself in the mainstream — and Trump outside it

The most powerful part of Obama’s speech, though, came when she stopped imagining the world seen through her children’s eyes and revealed how it looks through her own: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said. “And I watch my daughters, two beautiful intelligent black young women, play with the dog on the White House lawn.”

Because of Clinton, she said, “my daughters and all of our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States. Don't let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great.”

This was the rhetorical audacity of her speech: to turn around the attacks made on her and, 20 years ago, on the Clintons, and to turn them against Republicans.

Her critics caricatured her in 2008 as angry, unpatriotic, outside the mainstream — and she told Democrats that America was “the greatest country on Earth” and deserves “a leader who is worthy of that truth.”

Twenty years ago, Republicans attacked Bill Clinton by saying that character matters in presidents — and Obama argued that, yes, it does, and that Hillary Clinton is the one who has it.

This is partly just some very good rhetoric. Obama’s speech was packed with the kind of lines that dare anyone, no matter their political beliefs, not to applaud — paeans to police officers and parents, an affirmation of racial progress, an almost total absence of policy.

But it’s also striking how those universal applause lines, the reminders of unity rather than divisiveness that made Barack Obama’s 2004 speech so successful, were remarkably few and far between at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Obama was able to fight on this ground in part because Trump abdicated it. She could argue for American greatness because his slogan is “Make America Great Again.” And she was able to put herself in the center because the Republican Party gave her a nominee she could show to be on the fringes.

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