It’s important to keep in mind that there isn’t a political speech that isn’t also a performance, that Michelle Obama’s presentation last night was, of course, a rhetorical exercise, and that her mission was nothing short of updating the American people on the Obama’s 2008 contract of hope with the goal of reengagement. It was also a very political speech. In describing who her husband is, while each example was highly personal, each one was also carefully connected to a different policy point. The end of the speech, tying even the most disenfranchised American to our pioneers and founders, it didn’t sound as much like Michelle as it did when she was speaking about family. That being said, though, this was an extraordinary speech for many reasons. I’ll focus on just a few.
First, this was a profoundly emotional and intimate speech. It wasn’t just emotional in any simple way, however. It was emphatic but also tender. It was idealistic but also practical. Like a acclaimed piece of music, it offered a complex range and mixture of emotions. It was passionate, humorous, knowing, rallying, imploring and also probing. Most specifically and unusually, though, Michelle Obama conveyed a quality you don’t see in a political speech very often, if at all: vulnerability. Without having to place her hopes, fears and joy in any kind of context of weakness or strength (which is what almost all political discourse is about), Obama uncovered that vulnerability every mother, every parent and every spouse knows.
Second, it’s extremely rare and difficult to address even a moderate-sized room, let alone a convention arena and a national television audience, and make people feel that you’re having a heart-to-heart, just you and Michelle, as if on a park bench or across the kitchen table. If you watched how it played last night, it’s not just that the audience was riveted but you would have also noticed how, in the way the audience members were either nodding or smiling in deep engagement, even speaking quiet words of response, Obama created a connection with those audience members as if nobody else was there.