Michelle Obama may think that Donald Trump “cannot meet this moment”, but she has proved without a doubt that she can.
When Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) last week, she pleaded for Americans to vote for Joe Biden like their “lives depend on it”. She used her recent history as America’s “mom-in-chief” to make her case in what was the most talked-about speech of the convention. And she made clear that first ladies have enormous platforms, if they choose to use them.
“You know that I tell you exactly what I’m feeling. You know I hate politics,” she said. “If you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this: if you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can; and they will if we don’t make a change in this election.”
There is no role in American politics as nebulous, or as visible, as the first lady’s. These women have a difficult needle to thread: first ladies are supposed to be relatable women, perfect mothers, and brilliant campaigners all at once. Ironically, the less political they are, the more political capital they earn with voters. Now, during a surreal virtual convention with no cheering crowds and no balloons, Americans are looking for familiar comforting faces, and that is exactly what Michelle Obama gave them.
First ladies are playing an increasingly important role because, as the country grows more divided, they are voices of reason and compassion. These women use their resumés as wives and mothers to soften and humanise their husbands. And showing a politician’s human side is more important during the pandemic than ever. Like Eleanor Roosevelt during the second world war, or Laura Bush after 11 September, a first lady offers hope.
First ladies are perfectly poised to make the case – they usually have higher favourability ratings than their husbands
First lady hopeful, Jill Biden, spoke at the DNC from the Delaware high school classroom where she taught English. She talked about grading papers at night while her husband tucked their two sons into bed (Biden’s political career is inextricably tied to the death of his first wife and baby daughter in a car crash). And she marvelled at her husband’s strength after his son Beau’s death from cancer. Biden went back to work four days after he died, she said, because he had to keep fighting for American families. “I’ve always understood why he did it – for the daughter who convinces her mom to finally get a breast cancer screening and misses work to drive her to the clinic, for the community college student who has faced homelessness and survived abuse but finds the grit to finish her degree and make a good life for her kids.”
When Michelle Obama said that Trump “simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is,” she was referring to comments Trump made during an Axios interview that aired on HBO in early August. When asked about the devastating death toll from coronavirus, the president said, “It is what it is.” Obama’s entire point was to show his lack of empathy and humanity and contrast that with Joe Biden’s preponderance of both.
First ladies are perfectly poised to make the case. They usually have higher favourability ratings than their husbands because they typically keep their influence private. From Jackie Kennedy, who in the summer of 1961 had a 66% favourable rating, to Rosalynn Carter, who had a 68% positive rating, to Laura Bush, whose favourable rating peaked at an astonishing 85% in 2005, these women are huge assets to their husbands and anyone they choose to support after they leave the White House.
At the DNC, Obama framed her argument against Trump by looking through her two daughters’ eyes: “They see our leaders labelling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening torch-bearing white supremacists. They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown into cages, and pepper spray and rubber bullets are used on peaceful protestors for photo-ops,” she said. “Sadly, this is the America that is on display for the next generation.”
Just imagine Laura Bush talking like that in 2012 about Barack Obama, who was her husband’s successor. Bush (and her husband George) did not even bother showing up at the 2012 Republican National Convention where Mitt Romney was nominated. It was not worth it.
Melania Trump is scheduled to speak at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday. She will be delivering her remarks from the White House’s famous Rose Garden, which she recently had redone using private donations.
Her headlining speech at the RNC’s opening night in 2016 did not go so well once it was discovered how strikingly similar it was to Michelle Obama’s remarks at the DNC in 2008. I wonder if she can find her own words to tell voters why they should re-elect her husband.
Kate Andersen Brower is the author of Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump and First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies