The first lady’s speech laid out a clear series of choices for the American people ― between a candidate who takes the job seriously and one who doesn’t; between a candidate trying to divide people and one striving to find common bonds; between a candidate out to benefit himself and one out to help others.
But the power of what Obama said lay in its ability to take Donald Trump’s vision of America and turn it upside down, to praise the increasing diversity of the country, rather than decry it.
In one of the speech’s many memorable passages, she summed up her argument by saying that America doesn’t need to be made great again, because “right now it is the greatest country on Earth.”
With that line, Obama put Democrats on the side of optimism and patriotism. In fact, one Republican advisor bemoaned on social media that his party had blown its chance to do the same thing.
“Obama referred to Trump only by implication. But those references were devastating.”
Of course, Obama only referred to Trump by implication. But those references were devastating, like when she said the president must be “someone who understands that the issues the president faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters” ― a reference to the real estate mogul’s love for Twitter.
She went on to describe the job requirements for the presidency ― a subject on which she clearly has some expertise ― and once again raised doubts on Trump by implication. “When you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions,” Obama said. “You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady and measured and well informed.”
Obama was less coy about mentioning Hillary Clinton. She spoke admiringly of the Democratic presidential candidate’s perseverance in the face of political resistance, as well as Clinton’s devotion to improving the lives of others. She noted Clinton’s willingness to do the “relentless, thankless work to actually make people’s lives better.” That sounded an awful lot like a response to liberals who have criticized Clinton, not to mention President Barack Obama, for failing to outline or achieve more ambitious goals.
Still, the attacks on Trump and praise of Clinton were not what made the speech so memorable. It was Obama’s thoughts about the United States as a place gradually more welcoming of strangers and accepting of marginalized groups or individuals within its midst.
To make her point, Obama drew on her own experience, as wife of the nation’s first African-American president. She talked about the challenge of dealing with questions about her husband’s citizenship and faith ― and the “hateful language” her daughters sometimes hear on television.
But she also reflected upon how far the country has come, uttering the passage that was arguably the most stirring of the night: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves and I watch my daughters, two beautiful and intelligent black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
That image, of the Obama children playing on the White House lawn, is an indicator of how much the country’s racial composition and hierarchies has changed and continues to do so. On Monday night, Obama reminded the country that the transformation is a source of strength, not weakness ― and that at least one of the political parties saw fit to nominate somebody who sees it that way.