She referred to him as “someone” the country had sent to the Oval Office. She spoke of the many failings of “this White House.” It was as if Trump was beneath serious discussion, unworthy of more than passing mention.
Finally, about midway through the 18-minute talk — by far the longest of the night — she called him out. “Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country…. He is clearly in over his head,” she said. “It is what it is.”
Surely not by coincidence, “it is what it is” are the very words Trump used in a recent interview to dismiss nearly 170,000 U.S. deaths from the coronavirus pandemic he so badly mishandled. It was epic shade.
Given the socially distanced nature of the convention, Obama spoke the way everyone speaks these days, alone in a well-decorated room facing a camera. Her tone was conversational, at times intimate; it was less an oration than a fireside chat. The format played well to her greatest strength: the ability to connect with an audience on a personal level.
The speech was less about Trump than about Trumpism — the chaos, the division and the “total and utter lack of empathy” that characterize his method of politics and governance. She warned that anyone who believes things cannot get worse is wrong. They can, she said.
“We have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it,” she said, and that means we have to be prepared to “stand in line all night” at the polls if necessary.
She had much praise for Biden’s experience, but even more for his character. “His life is a testament to getting back up,” she said. “And he is going to channel that same grit and passion to pick us all up — to help us heal and guide us forward.”
The job of a speaker on the first night of a national party convention is to inspire the faithful and set a tone for the rest of the week. Obama’s famous dictum, first pronounced at the 2016 Democratic convention — “When they go low, we go high” — mandates magnanimity and purpose. On a day when Trump tried to draw attention to himself by throwing red meat to his loyal base, painting Democrats as dangerous radicals who oppose law and order, Obama’s speech offered vivid contrast — and served as a corrective. No one can accuse her of being some sort of antifa-loving revolutionary.
“Going high” is still the only option, she cautioned Monday. If we go low, she warned, “we degrade ourselves.”
Earlier in the evening, a host of moderate Republicans addressed what they once would have considered the enemy camp, proclaiming their support of the Biden-Harris ticket. Former Ohio governor John Kasich said he is one lifelong Republican who will vote for Biden because “America is at a crossroads,” and he refuted the Trump campaign’s accusation that Biden will somehow be a puppet controlled by his party’s left wing. “No one pushes Joe Biden around,” he said.
A perhaps more impactful speech, in terms voter turnout, was given by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the patriarch of the party’s left wing. He said Trump is “leading us down the path of authoritarianism" and implored his supporters not to sulk but to enthusiastically vote for Biden. “Our movement continues and gets stronger every day,” he reassured them, highlighting the progressive planks of Biden’s platform. “The future of our planet is at stake.”
For years now, the conventions have actually been little more than ceremonial gatherings to ratify and showcase decisions already made by voters in the primaries — glitzy four-night extravaganzas aimed at a massive television audience. The covid-19 pandemic eliminated any pretense that this year’s conventions are anything but highly scripted political infomercials.
Speakers tonight had no crowd to rouse, no applause to draw energy from, no way to gauge how their orations were being received. They had no choice but to trust in the words themselves — and their ability to deliver those words convincingly, with authenticity and passion.
Standing before a multitude, Barack Obama is masterful at inspiring minds and moving hearts. Looking into a camera lens and speaking to people in the privacy of their homes, as she did tonight, Michelle Obama may be even better.