On the First Lady’s Speech
I think Tom Junod’s characterization of the First Lady’s speech is exactly right.
“Republican commentators,” he writes, “spoke almost winsomely of Ann Romney’s need to humanize Mitt Romney; but no Democratic commentator could speak of the necessity of “Americanizing” Barack Obama without indulging the worst instincts of the American electorate.”
In this context the style and content of the speech are easier to make sense of. The background radiation of racial prejudice makes her remarks more than predictable populist appeals; less about demonstrating that she and Barak understand the every-family and its problems than about trying to help the every-family try to understand them.
In Junod’s post he mentions a conversation with “members of the demographic said to be implacably hostile to Barack Obama.”
“There was no way around it, they said — he wasn’t an American, even if he happened to be born here. And that Michelle Obama —“
“What about Michelle Obama?” I asked.
“Well, don’t you think she’s a racist?” one of them said.
“A racist? What has she ever said or done to indicate that she’s a racist?”
“She doesn’t have to say anything. You can tell by the look in her eyes.”
This sentiment was summed up last week in one older lady’s reaction to Ann Romney’s speech in Tampa when asked to comment on the President,
“I just don’t like him. Can’t stand to look at him. I don’t like his wife — she’s far from the First Lady. It’s about time we get a First Lady in there who acts like a First Lady and looks like a First Lady.”
You’ll remember that back during the 2008 election, then Republican contender John McCain had to talk another old white lady down when she claimed Obama was a terrorist. And that was before the Tea Party, or the momentary cottage industry the middle-American revolt gave birth to.
Remember Glen Beck’s 9/12 get together back in 2010? Spectacles of racial resentment there were in abundance. As John Jeremiah Sullivan recounted at the time,
“Standing on a garbage can and commanding a lot of attention is a strange figure. A small man or woman—you can’t see enough of its body to tell—holds a handmade sign that reads YES I AM. The creature wears an Obama mask. When people holler “Obama!” it looks in their direction and does a little shuffle. Atop the Obama mask sits a fake gold crown. Obama thinks he’s a king! (Is that what YES I AM means? Yes, I am a king?) The king has on a bright purple pimp’s coat with faux-leopard-skin trim. An African king? It looks like something you’d see and turn away from in a southern antiques shop. We do turn away, after taking a pic.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates has deciphered this narrative in extensive, intimate detail. It remains one of the more compelling political theories of the last four years because, unlike most others, it explains Republican obstruction and reactionary malice in addition to the Democrat’s incomplete, right of center legislative agenda.
In such circumstances, the First Lady’s speech becomes all the more impressive and emotionally compelling. In it, she tells a story about young couple negotiating their careers and family, their relationship to each other and to the numerous communities to which they belong (religious, political, racial, etc.)
Garance Franke-Ruta outlines just a few of the moments when the First Lady attempts to “reveal” the first family as a truly American one. But the most effect theme, in my opinion, was the motif generational progress, of wanting to leave your children with better opportunities than you yourself had access to. This draws a stark contrast to the Romney’s who are several generations removed from concerns like these.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Democrats have been pushing the auto-bailout as a signature achievement so forcefully, and that last night the First Lady relayed this anecdote,
“You see, even though back then Barack was a Senator and a presidential candidate … to me, he was still the guy who’d picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger side door…”
Can you picture Romney driving a jalopy? Ever? Romney never had to worry about a plant closing and leaving him laid off, about what would happen if his car broke down and he couldn’t get to his job, about going to pick up your date in a rusted old clunker. It’s a difference in upbringing and in privilege which, rather than being used to emphasize class warfare as other speeches last night tried to, but rather to emphasize (in a positive light) that Barak and Michelle Obama are an American family with American concerns (and what could be more fundamentally American than the imagery of automobiles and the factory workers who make them?)