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What Michelle Obama’s DNC speech says about America

In 2016, she sounded a message of hope. In 2020, she struck a somewhat more ominous tune.

Democrats Hold Unprecedented Virtual Convention From Milwaukee
Eva Longoria introduces former first lady Michelle Obama to address the virtual Democratic National Convention on August 17, 2020.
Handout/DNCC via Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

Former first lady Michelle Obama solidified her position as one of the Democratic Party’s most effective orators during her keynote speech on the first night of the Democratic National Convention Monday. Her words once again served as a reliable barometer for how Democrats feel about the direction of the country.

She accomplished this by building on the themes of her iconic 2016 DNC convention address. Back then, Obama urged a crowd in Philadelphia to recognize how great America is — but this time around she raised the ante, urgently arguing that America can only be great if Americans exercise their right to vote. This shift in emphasis — even more so than the fact that the usual roaring convention crowd was replaced by the quiet of Obama’s home — illustrates just how much America has changed in four years.

In 2016, Obama’s speech went viral for her snappy take on what it means to be the bigger person in the face of hate: “When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. Our motto is, when they go low, we go high,” she said in 2016. The phrase made news headlines and has been plastered onto T-shirts.

On Monday, Obama reminded viewers of the need to take the high road, despite the unprecedented challenges that 2020 has brought, saying, “Going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low — when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others — we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else. We degrade ourselves. We degrade the very causes for which we fight.”

Obama called on Democrats to summon the will to triumph over Trump

Obama, acknowledging that America is struggling under the weight of multiple crises, sharpened her 2016 point this year — arguing that fighting and going high aren’t mutually exclusive. She was explicit about what she sees as the stakes of the 2020 election.

“Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation under God, and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences,” she said. “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.”

In 2016, Obama did not mention Trump at all, but in 2020 she called the president out by name: “Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can. Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” she said. “He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us.”

Obama’s direct critique of Trump is a stark contrast to her reserved criticism of him in 2016 when she said, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great. That somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth,” an evolution that speaks to the consequences of the president’s first four years, and that gave a voice to the urgency many Democrats feel when it comes to the possibility of a second Trump term.

She was also more direct in addressing the crisis of systemic racism, moving beyond acknowledging it to describe its effects — and to position her address as an example of how that system might be fought against.

In 2016, she said that the story of this country is built on the backs of the enslaved, remarking, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” but took it further Monday by touching on the impact of slavery and how its legacy continues to divide the country. “I understand that my message won’t be heard by some people. We live in a nation that is deeply divided, and I am a Black woman speaking at the Democratic Convention.”

The way to fight Trump and to create a more ideal America, Obama argued, is ultimately through voting — it was a theme that Obama brought home in 2020: In her 2016 address, she said the word “vote” once; in 2020, she said it 12 times.

“This is not the time to withhold our votes in protest or play games with candidates who have no chance of winning,” Obama said. “We’ve got to vote early, in person if we can. We’ve got to request our mail-in ballots right now, tonight, and send them back immediately and follow-up to make sure they’re received. And then, make sure our friends and families do the same.”

Overall, Obama’s shift in tone and messaging emphasized the failures of the Trump administration and reminded her audience that a second Trump term would mean those shortcomings would continue to have an outsized effect on American life. In underscoring the stakes, she renewed the meaning of the “high road,” redefining it as demanding participation from all American citizens rather than simply grace.

“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.

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