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Michelle Obama made this election about something much bigger than Clinton versus Trump

Democratic National Convention: Day One (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Every great speech has a stop-everything, listen-to-this moment. In Michelle Obama’s speech before the Democratic National Convention, it was this, where she talks about her place in history as the first black mother in the White House:

[This] is the story that has brought me to this stage tonight. The story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done — so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.

And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, play with their dogs on the White House lawn.

It was a beautiful moment, reminding America of its dark history and how far it has come.

It also helped make the real point of Obama’s address very, very clear: It was a speech about how the president sets the tone for the nation — and whether you want someone with Donald Trump’s spiteful, cruel personality as the role model your children look up to.

This was a speech about why the Obamas mattered — what they meant to America, and especially to its black community. It was a speech about what it would be like to be given the choice to replace the first black president with the first woman — and instead choose someone best known for racism, misogyny, and personal cruelty.

That’s what made the speech so powerful. It framed the election as a choice not between people — but between the best parts of American history and the worst.

Do you really want your children looking up to Donald Trump?

First Family Attends National Christmas Tree (Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images)

Obama’s speech was, first and foremost, about her children. "I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns," she said, recalling their first school day in office. "And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, what have we done?"

It was a cute, funny way to open the speech. But Obama quickly turned it into something serious:

At that moment I realized that our time in the White House would form the foundation for who they would become, and how well we managed this experience could truly make or break them. That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight, how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith.

Gut punch.

Obama is reminding us that Trump’s career in politics began as a leading "birther" — a tribune of a movement aiming to define the first black president as un-American. And she’s connecting that to her own children, to the idea that racist attacks on her husband aren’t just hurtful — they send a message to black children that they aren’t welcome in this country.

Her message wasn’t just about Trump’s racism but also his overall cruelty. "When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level," she says. "No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high."

The first family, in Obama’s telling, isn’t just about meaningless symbolism. It’s about setting the tone for the nation, for its children. What the first family does helps guide what’s acceptable behavior in the country and what isn’t.

So the implicit question in the speech is this: Do you want that role model to be a person who mocks reporters with disabilities? Calls Mexicans rapists? Brags about the size of his penis at a presidential debate? Calls women "fat pigs" and mocks them for having periods?

Obama didn’t need to list off these incidents by name — Trump’s vicious personality is, at this point, well-known. In fact, she never mentioned Trump by name.

She didn’t have to.

Every parent — hell, pretty much everyone — can appreciate the idea that children learn by example. That you teach them to be kind, not cruel; to respect others, not to bully them.

Michelle Obama identified the most accessible way imaginable to make Trump’s troubling personality into a campaign issue, and hammered it home.

Race, gender, and Donald Trump

Donald Trump Hillary Clinton heads side by side (Getty Images)

But any speech about the national symbolism of the Obamas must, ultimately, come back to race.

The president is, of course, a role model to everyone — but the first black president was far more important to the black community. President Obama’s victory taught young black children that there’s no job off limits to them, that a country that once enslaved them and beat them could maybe, finally, start to treat them as equals.

Michelle Obama spoke movingly about "a little black boy who looked up at my husband, his eyes wide with hope, and he wondered, Is my hair like yours?"

Obama knows, better than anyone, save perhaps her husband, what it means to be the first of something new in the White House. Which is why her framing of the election was so moving.

Obama described Clinton as the Obamas’ spiritual successor. Clinton would do for girls what the Obamas did for that young black boy — teach them that someone like them could one day hold the highest office, that the glass ceiling everywhere could be well and truly shattered.

"Because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States," Obama said.

Clinton, in this telling, is the next logical step in the American story. We tell our children that this is a country where everyone is created equal, but we haven’t lived it, not really. Elevating a woman after a black man would be a resounding statement that we are moving forward — that American ideals about liberty trumped the American reality of slavery and sexism.

Obama contrasted that, directly, with Trump’s famous "Make America Great Again" slogan.

"Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again," Obama said, just after her discussion of race and gender in the White House. "Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth!"

This, then, is the choice Michelle Obama is giving us. Do we want to continue what we started with the Obamas, a project of emancipation and equality? Or do we want someone who pines for the "good ol’ days," back when things were so much worse for people who looked like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?

If role models and symbols matter, then the president is the biggest one of all. And in those terms, Michelle Obama says, this election could not present a starker choice.

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