Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention on Monday night turned that trope upside down and displayed how much she has evolved as a leader who disdains politics but absolutely understands political instincts and strategy. After years in the spotlight, she assumes some will try to portray her as angry, so she used her time and platform to invite the world to understand the source of her concern and ask, in effect: Why aren’t you angry, too?
It was a master class for women who are forced every day to dance on the knife-edge of that stereotype, unsure if they can admit to, or embrace, justifiable anger. Along that edge, every step is perilous.
It is why so many women, especially women of color, have perfected the art of shifting down to a lower gear to convey frustration or disappointment. Screaming or loud talk does not have the same impact as a slow and measured and cadenced statement where each word sinks to a slightly lower octave.
It is . . . what . . . it is.
Oh, the levels in that statement.
She necklaced President Trump with his own words — in his case uttered early this month to shrug off a covid-19 death rate that had spiraled out of control. In her case, used this week to remind us of a man who has treated a global pandemic like a hoax, a fleeting threat that will just “go away.”
For Trump, those words were a statement of derision and apathy, delivered with a shrug of the shoulder and what looked like a smirk, as if he was offended that reporters, voters or the citizens of the world expected him to come up with a plan for the pandemic.
It’s the kind of move you’d expect to hear from Liam Neeson in one of his many kidnapping movies. The phrase has been synonymous with “deal with it” or “so what’s to be done, really?” A question that doesn’t really beg for an answer because “absolutely nothing” is the presumed response.
In Michelle Obama’s hands, the words were a statement of agency and action.
“Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can: Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. 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.”
And then those five words.
“It is what it is.”
A statement as powerful as this would normally be adorned by cheers and applause in the roar of a convention hall. The camera would cut away to all those tall lollipop signs with her name spelled out in patriotic colors. But with no pageantry, the words hung in the air with savage clarity.
The viewers were hunkered down and she was, too, sitting in a lamp-lit den that made the whole thing feel like one of those conversations you have at the kitchen table when you need unvarnished advice. Her tone was serious and measured, floating a few notes below the actual sting of the words. That “tell it like it is” superpower on full display.
It’s certainly clear that Trump felt the sting. On Tuesday, he tried to repurpose the former first lady’s words, suggesting that she was the one who was in over her head because she had taped her speech several days earlier and therefore used a covid-19 death count that is now inaccurate.
What a strange correction. Yes, the death count has soared by about 20,000 souls. Things are much worse now than before. The president does not realize those soaring numbers will most certainly damn his legacy.
“It is what it is.”
When the former first lady said those five words, she reminded us that he is who he is and he won’t change unless the fall election delivers him a change of address.