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The quiet radicalism of Michelle Obama's Democratic convention speech

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton are the only two people living on earth to have the experience of putting a career on hold to become first lady of the United States.

Rosalynn Carter and Barbara Bush were primarily homemakers before moving to the White House. Laura Bush had quit her job as a librarian long before George W. Bush made it to Washington. But Clinton gave up her job as a partner at a prestigious Little Rock law firm. Obama gave up a senior executive position at the University of Chicago Hospitals.

When Clinton was at the stage that Obama has now reached, she was running for Senate in New York, as it was her turn to forge her own political career once Bill’s was finished. Obama has shown little interest in following that path. She declined to challenge Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) this year and has over and over again expressed reluctance about her husband’s decision to go into politics in the first place — not exactly the sign of an insatiable political animal who’ll miss this life terribly.

But for all their differences, she shares with Clinton a conviction that the position of first lady — with its focus on domesticity and family — needn’t be limiting and can be a powerful platform to express the administration and party’s values and ideals. And you could see that theme woven throughout her convention speech on Monday night. Clinton, she said again and again, will do right by our families. She will do right by our children.

The cynical reading is that Obama is accepting the limited understanding of first lady as confined to commenting on and thinking about traditional women’s and parenting issues. But something more substantial is going on here. Clinton has spent much of her life, from her time at the Children’s Defense Fund to It Takes a Village to her current push on paid parental leave, demanding that "women’s issues" be taken seriously, that concerns of parenting and children and motherhood are as important as anything else on the minds of presidents.

Obama hit that message again and again and again, with feeling and conviction:

I trust Hillary to lead this country because I have seen her lifelong devotion to our nation’s children. Not just her own daughter, who she has raised to perfection. But every child who needs a champion. Kids who take the long way to school to avoid the gangs. Kids who wonder how they will ever afford college. Kids whose parents don't speak a word of English but dream of a better life. Who look to us to dream of what they can be. Hillary has spent decades doing the relentless work to actually make a difference in their lives.

…Hillary understands that the president is about one thing and one thing only — it is about leaving something better for our kids.

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

And after a primary race in which the failings of the first Clinton administration on mass incarceration and welfare and other racially charged issues came to the fore repeatedly, Obama explicitly tied the historic nature of Clinton’s campaign to the historic progress represented by her and her husband’s move to the White House:

Leaders like Hillary Clinton who have the guts and the grace to keep coming back and putting those cracks in the highest and hardest glass ceiling until they finally break through, lifting all of us along with her.

That is the story of this country. The story that has brought me to the stage tonight. The story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, 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 the dog on the White House lawn.

Here, too, Obama is recentering her role as first lady and mother as a role of consequence. That Malia and Sasha are playing and living and thriving in rooms built using slave labor, by slave owners who never dreamed that they were building a home for the descendants of the men they kept as property, is itself a political act, a political accomplishment, a real step forward for the country.

Tellingly, Obama did not mention Trump. Hers was a purely positive speech, the kind of soaring, inspirational oratory that made her husband famous 12 years ago. A week after Obama’s national debut speech at the 2008 convention was plagiarized by Trump’s wife, her remarks tonight felt like the ultimate rebuke. She is a more confident, fluent, and powerful speaker than she was in 2008 — and a far more persuasive one, too.

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