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‘It is what it is’: How Michelle Obama’s ‘epic shade’ won the DNC’s opening night

Former first lady Michelle Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 17. Here are some highlights of the speech. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Halfway through her closing speech at the Democratic National Convention on Monday night, Michelle Obama shifted to address what she called the “cold, hard truth.”

“Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” the former first lady said, looking intently at the camera. “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,” she continued, and then sighed: “It is what it is.”

In a matter of moments, those last five words — it is what it is — went from an old platitude to the buzziest sound bite on the Internet, becoming the instant highlight of a speech anchoring the DNC’s first night.

Normally used as an expression of derision and disregard, the phrase stood out for many thanks to its succinct, biting disapproval of a president who had used the same line himself in a widely panned sound bite last month. While it was trending overnight on Twitter, people proclaimed Obama’s use of the saying as a “dagger” and “simply brilliant” and “murder at 1600 Penn.”

“Michelle Obama Writes the Five-Word Epitaph for Trump’s Presidency,” read a headline in the Daily Beast.

Much like another memorable quotation of hers from the last Democratic convention — “when they go low, we go high” — many observers asserted this particular snippet could become a liberal mantra for the 2020 election.

This time, though, there was more bite. If 2016 Obama was singing the virtues of the high road, firmly but selectively pushing back on a presidential candidate who had peddled falsehoods about her husband, her 2020 speech dropped lightning from that high road by using Trump’s words against him.

It was, the author and journalist Virginia Heffernan said, “proof that going high can mean going stiletto.”

During her speech, Obama seemed to address that idea herself, offering a clarification to her now-famous words at the 2016 convention.

“Going high is the only thing that works,” she insisted. “But let’s be clear: Going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top.”

On social media, many seemed to think it was not a coincidence that “it is what it is” had been deployed by the president himself two weeks ago during an interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan. As Swan grilled the president on the U.S.'s growing coronavirus death toll, which stands at more than 167,000, Trump used the saying to insist his administration was successfully managing the pandemic.

“They are dying. That’s true,” Trump said during the interview. “It is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it.”

Much like Obama’s turn of the phrase, Trump’s “it is what it is” went down as one of the most striking moments in an interview filled with them. So for those watching her on Monday evening, the subtle reference to the president’s defense earlier this month made her zinger that much more memorable.

“What a brilliant retort to Trump’s callous and pathetic use of the same phrase,” wrote David Plouffe, her husband’s former campaign manager and senior adviser.

During MSNBC’s analysis of the night, TV host Nicolle Wallace praised it as “epic shade.”

It “was the line that Donald Trump had about deaths, and every single death, every single American life lost in this pandemic is the destruction of an entire family unit,” said Wallace, a former communications director for George W. Bush, her fellow panelists all nodding their heads in agreement. “For her to throw that back at him was elegant."

Democrats gathered virtually on Aug. 17 to launch the national convention for presumptive nominee Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala D.Harris (D-Calif.) (Video: The Washington Post)

The earliest origins of this tautology are murky. Although the philosopher John Locke used it in a 1689 essay, William Safire, the former Nixon speechwriter and etymology columnist for the New York Times Magazine, wrote in 2006 that he could not conclusively find its genesis in the English language.

Since its rise in popularity around two decades ago, according to Slate, everyone from Cal Ripken Jr. and Britney Spears to George W. Bush have deployed “it is what it is” as a passive and sometimes cheeky way to acknowledge the facts before them.

As Obama catapulted it into news headlines and across social media Monday night, different parts of the Internet seemed to view it with a range of very different meanings: Some mentioned it as a classic line uttered by the older members of Black families. The singer Kacey Musgraves, who penned a tune called “It Is What It Is,” tweeted the phrase out with no other context.

Some people joked about Melania Trump planning to use it during the Republican National Convention next week, a reference at her apparent plagiarism of another speech by her predecessor in the East Wing four years ago.

At least one Republican lawmaker, too, was quick to take it up as a way to jab back at Obama and her husband.

“It is what it is,” wrote Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a staunch Trump ally. “Without @BarackObama there would be no @realDonaldTrump.”