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Michelle Obama’s superpower is her ability to connect

TV is an intimate medium. In her DNC speech, Michelle Obama showed she knows how to play to it.

Michelle Obama addresses the virtual Democratic National Convention, August 17, 2020.
DNCC via Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The speakers at the 2020 Democratic National Convention this week are faced with a unique challenge.

Traditionally, convention speakers play off an amped-up arena full of screaming supporters. The speaker looks the audience in their eyes, the audience cheers wildly at every applause line, and both speaker and crowd feed off each other’s energy to create something that in the best-case scenario is both dynamic and compelling.

But at this year’s socially distanced, all-virtual DNC, the speakers sit or stand alone, mostly in empty rooms. They deliver their speeches directly to the camera. And they have to try to build a connection with the audience watching at home without the benefit of live applause breaks.

During Monday night’s opening programming, former first lady Michelle Obama came closest to making that connection.

Television creates intimacy because it brings its subjects into the living rooms of the audience, and Obama took full advantage of her medium. While the other speakers delivered their speeches at lecterns in front of flag-strewn backdrops (or, in John Kasich’s case, at a literal crossroads), Obama sat informally in what appeared to be her own living room. The details of Obama’s background were blurred out, but her facial expressions and accessories were clear. She wore a delicate necklace reminding her audience to vote. She spoke conversationally to the camera, pitching her voice to individual viewers watching at home rather than to an arena that was not there. She radiated sincerity. She made a personal connection without being able to see anyone in her audience in person.

In the end, Obama’s speech was the most acclaimed of the night. CNN declared it proof that Michelle Obama is as gifted an orator as her celebrated husband. Frank Bruni called the speech “salvation.” Even Stephen Colbert couldn’t make fun of it.

But Obama’s success wasn’t a surprise. Because building intimacy with her audience — no matter its size — has always been Michelle Obama’s superpower.

Since leaving the White House, Michelle Obama has gone out of the way to be vulnerable and open in public

During her husband’s presidential administration, Michelle Obama made a point of positioning herself as a friendly and non-threatening figure, someone any American could imagine was part of the family. She declared herself the “Mom-in-Chief.” And she devoted herself to the White House vegetable garden because she felt it was the best way that she could use her platform as first lady to get things done without scaring anyone. “A garden felt elemental and apolitical,” Obama wrote in her 2018 memoir Becoming, “a harmless and innocent undertaking by a lady with a spade.”

It was a deliberate strategic choice. The garden gave Obama a way to begin a national conversation about nutrition and childhood obesity, and to do so in a way that gave her political enemies as little ammunition as possible. Conservatives still criticized the initiative, but their efforts were blunted. Who wants to pile onto the Mom-in-Chief planting wholesome vegetables for children in the White House backyard?

Despite the best efforts of Fox News et al., Obama maintained approval ratings of a near-constant 66 percent throughout her husband’s time in office. And after the Obamas left the White House, her reputation only improved. Obama was the most admired woman in America in both 2018 and 2019.

That’s due, in part, to Obama’s decision to get personal with America after she was no longer first lady. In Becoming, Obama explains that while her husband was in office, she felt a responsibility to the country to project a flawless and aspirational image that her fellow Americans could rely on.

“When you’re the president and the first lady, your job is not to nurture yourself,” she said during her book tour in 2019. “There’s a lot of stuff I would have easily shared, but you don’t want the country to have to worry about us going to marriage counseling, for example. It wasn’t about us. For those eight years, it was about the service to the country.”

But since she has left office, Obama has shared secret after secret, and in the process she has made herself unusually emotionally vulnerable for a former first lady. She’s spoken about her miscarriages, and her struggles with depression. She’s talked about rocky periods in her marriage. In her memoir, on her book tour, and now on her new podcast, Obama has been shockingly, intimately candid.

Obama’s vulnerability has been lucrative for her. Becoming and its accompanying arena tour made millions. When she announced her podcast deal with Spotify, Spotify’s stock jumped 5 percent.

But Obama’s other big gain from her candidness is the enormous emotional capital it has won her with the country. When she sits down for a political stump speech, she can say, “Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can,” and her audience will know that means something. She’s already been so overwhelmingly honest and clear with us.

And when she follows up that statement by saying, “Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” that means something, too. When Michelle Obama says something matters, people listen.

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