The Different Sorts of “Other”
It’s more than likely that the next twenty-four hours of news coverage will be about how Michelle Obama didn’t just “humanize” her husband during her DNC speech, she went on the offensive. It was an outstanding speech with the potential to reshape the argument currently at the core of the campaign. But hey, you don’t have to take my word for it—the snap reactions online were unanimous.
Stunning, brilliant, moving, passionate and right. Flawless. That was a speech a presidential nominee would be proud to have given. The best speech of the conventions so far. There was an emotional arc and steel to this that was as suffused with patriotism as it was with love. Yes, I’m gushing. But gushing is what I feel. And this is live-blogging. So sue me. I’ve never heard a speech from a First Lady anywhere close to this.
…and Grist‘s David Roberts:
Jesus. This speech has left the Romneys in smoldering ruins without once mentioning them.
— David Roberts (@drgrist) September 5, 2012
…and The American Prospect‘s Jamelle Bouie:
Michelle’s speech, more than anything, is a direct repudiation of the entire Romney narrative. And she does it with such a wonderful smile.
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) September 5, 2012
Pare away Twitter’s typical pyrogenicity and you’ll find that the speech presses directly on a really elemental part of the 2012 conservative argument against the president. To put it another way, it wasn’t just an argument contrasting Barack Obama’s path to wealth and power with Mitt Romney’s—it hit at one of the ugly beliefs holding the conservative electoral coalition together.
Yes, the First Lady did a compelling job of contrasting the president’s humble background with Romney’s socioeconomic (and political) head start. There was always something weirdly hollow about Mitt Romney—a guy whose success came with a massive boost from unearned personal, racial, social, etc advantages—brandishing his bootstraps in defense of business owners who “DID build that, dammit!” Jane Credit Union, typical American, recognizes Barack Obama’s early career much more than Romney’s:
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…he was the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he’d found in a dumpster, and whose only pair of decent shoes was half a size too small.
Barack knows the American Dream because he’s lived it…and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love.
But to see this as just an economic kinship thing is a mistake. Don’t feel too bad. It’s the very mistake that Fox News commentators Brit Hume and Charles Krauthammer stumbled over each other to make in their post-speech analysis. Both complained that (paraphrasing here) whining about humble beginnings is tedious and boring and unproductive unless it comes from Marco Rubio. Both, in other words, only saw the economic inequality story: Romney was and is still rich and Obama suffered in poverty before becoming wealthy. Barack Obama’s economic story is a recognizable, defensible path to the American Dream.
And that is pretty pedestrian, since everyone pretty much knew that already about the two guys. But—big surprise here—it’s easy to find important things boring if you take a myopic, inflexible view of them. That strategy, I submit, is a necessary part of all successful mass punditry, and nowhere is it more on display than Fox. Etc.
Forgive me, for I’m in danger of straying too far afield.
The real genius of Michelle Obama’s speech is more elemental. From the beginning of his political career, Barack Hussein Obama has faced persistent attempts to define him as “other” than American. You know all the faltering, inconsistent, evidence-free labels. He is Kenyan or Indonesian, but certainly NOT a “real” American. He is a Muslim or a Black Nationalist Christian or a godless atheist. He has residual anti-colonial instincts fueling his fascism, socialism, and/or amorphous Europhilia. He pals around with terrorists and is either too black or not black enough. Whatever he is, he’s not us. He’s nothing you’ve heard—he’s NOT you.
In other words, Barack Obama’s political opponents have been uniquely interested in painting him out of the American tradition (Why? There are complicated reasons, and there are simpler ones, but those don’t matter for the point I’m making. For the record, it looks like racism to me.). This often surges forth when leftists ask why conservatives weren’t excised by the Bush Administration’s deficit spending. “Well, it’s just that Obama’s got an un-American Marxist agenda, for Pete’s sake!” These critics offer him no leeway because he is not part of their country, as they understand it.
His wife’s speech at the DNC was an attempt—not the Administration’s first, though perhaps its best—to combat that ugliness. It was a speech that demanded the president’s recognition as one of ours. It insisted that Barack Obama’s personal story is also a recognizable, defensible way to live as an American. It was a speech about a man who lives the virtues that Americans hold dear. This was a speech about a devoted husband and father whose deeply American past guides his vision of a better American future.
Only a fool—Cf. certain of Twitter’s left-leaning area codes—would call an election on the basis of one convention speech. Months remain. But if this speech seems to attract outsize attention in the days and weeks to come, it will be in part because it was such a firmly decent, kind, and positive response to bitter oppositional rancor.
Image Credit HERE.