"You know I hate politics," former First Lady Michelle Obama told the nation in her much-praised, raw and vulnerable address during the first evening of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) on Monday.
It was a seemingly incongruent statement for a major political speech, but it achieved a couple of goals. Number one, it seemingly precluded pundits and Twitter personalities from encouraging Obama to run for president, as they have done time and time again. She has already clearly expressed she is not interested in the job many times.
Two, the statement encapsulated what so many viewers are feeling and thinking these days. The weight of her frustration with our current world was palpable, from police violence to authoritarianism to hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 deaths. Obama acknowledged our own exhaustion with politics. She was one of us.
After a speech from Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich that progressives found off-putting and a relatively restrained address from Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday night, Obama’s candid, unfiltered assessment of the dumpster fire that is 2020 felt profoundly different from the rest, striking the urgent tone we need in the lead-up to the election.
Wearing her now-iconic Vote necklace, Obama repeatedly emphasized the gravity of the election, calling Donald Trump “the wrong president for our country.”
"He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is,” she said of Trump. “It is what it is.” That final line, celebrated on Twitter as “the sickest burn in political history,” was a direct response to Trump’s careless use of the phrase when he was asked about the devastation of COVID-19.
This head-on address to Trump, which the president wasted no time hitting back on, showed that while Obama may hate "politics," she cares deeply about the people of this country and is willing to stand up for them. And that is exactly what Democrats need in this moment — not political pandering, but genuine empathy and compassion for the struggles of our era.
Since the massive popularity of her 2018 memoir Becoming, which has sold over 11 million copies, Obama has emerged as an influential cultural figure, with an international book tour, an Emmy-nominated documentary, and a popular podcast. To her large following, she is also an incredibly relatable figure, recently sharing her struggles with “low-grade depression” amid the dual public health crises of the pandemic and systemic racism. But while her influence goes far beyond politics, she still has the power to sway votes.
Obama has made her share of rousing speeches before. At the 2016 DNC, she electrified voters with her optimistic mantra, “When they go low, we go high.” Back then, her mission was to unite disaffected factions of the Democratic Party against Donald Trump, a goal that hasn't changed. But in 2020, her follow-up carried a heavier weight, acknowledging the pain and frustration the country has been through in the past four years.
“Over the past four years, a lot of people have asked me, ‘When others are going so low, does going high still really work?’ My answer: ‘Going high is the only thing that works,’” she said. “But let's be clear: Going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top.”
It took Obama 11 minutes to mention Joe Biden, and when she did, she said that he is “not perfect,” further showing that she refuses to play party politics. But despite her acknowledgment of voters’ disillusionment, Obama concluded that, “we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.” By saying the imperfect, unvarnished truth, she showed that she might just understand this moment better than any politician.