They willed her to soar when she stepped out last night but she was already fueled up. With charm mixed with almost yearning earnestness, Michelle Obama stole the first night of the Democratic Convention offering a paean to her husband that silenced the ushers bossing us to keep the aisles clear and drew others to tissue away tears.
At one point calling herself Mom-in-Chief, Mrs Obama delivered a narrative that might have at times veered towards the saccharin and the Disney but which drove home a powerful theme: that the president her husband is a leader who knows himself and knows the nation because of where he came from and what he went through.
It was a speech meant above all to separate him from his challenger Mitt Romney. “For Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives,” she said, after ticking off what she said were his signature domestic achievements including passing universal healthcare, reinforcing a woman’s right to equal pay, defending low interest rates for students and supporting abortion and equal access to marriage.
“For Barack, these issues aren’t political, they’re personal,” said Mrs Obama in a raspberry and gold print Tracey Reese dress and J. Crew shoes. She said she had been wrong when she had feared that being president would change him. “After so many struggles and triumphs and moments that have tested my husband in ways I never could have imagined, I have seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are - it reveals who you are.”
Her speech came after a first night of proceedings that seemed to generate instant electricity in a way that the Republican convention of one week ago mostly did not. The mugginess and the dreadful musical interludes of Tampa were gone and delegates appeared to hang onto the words of most if not all the speakers while wearing a kind of confidence almost out of step with the wisdom of the pundits and the pollsters that this race is wide open.
The performance of Mrs Obama and of two other standout party stars before her – Julian Castro, the Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and Ted Strickland, the former Governor of Ohio – will set a high standard for the most anticipated speaker on this evening’s schedule, former president Bill Clinton. But it seemed unlikely that he, one of the most accomplished and still most popular political figures in the land, would let that intimidate him.
If Mrs Obama eschewed mention of Mr Romney, that was not so of Mr Strickland. Poking at his failure so far to release multiple years of his tax returns, he said, “You have to wonder what’s so embarrassing that he is going to such lengths to bury the truth.” He quipped that Mr Romney “has so little economic patriotism that even his money needs a passport. It summers on the beaches of the Cayman Islands, and winters on the slopes of the Swiss Alps.”
Mr Castro, who was plucked from relative obscurity to give last night’s keynote address, drew laughs by mocking the Republican nominee for saying ‘No’ on issue after issue until it came to universal healthcare which he introduced to Massachusetts while its governor. “Mitt Romney said ‘yes’, and now he says ‘no’. Governor Romney has undergone an extreme makeover, and it ain’t pretty,” he added triggering a wave of laughter.
But it was Mrs Obama that rang in the ears of delegates filing out of the Time Warner Arena into the Charlotte night. Some may have noticed signs to a fan zone high up in the terraces of the sports complex that goes by the name “Rock the Rooftop”, which is more or less what the first lady had just done, albeit before an audience that had been determined to love her before she had delivered even the first syllable.