Michelle Obama opened the Democratic National Convention on Monday night with a high-stakes speech designed to place her family squarely within the experience of American households everywhere.
It is a challenge each nominee's spouse before her has faced – notably Teresa Heinz Kerry in 2004 – but one that is also unique to her: As the first potential African American first lady, Michelle Obama has an unusually complicated task in trying to relate to and connect with the millions of families across the country looking for a president who understands and represents them.
“Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values,” she said. “That you work hard for what you want in life. That your word is your bond and you do what you say you're going to do. That you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them.”
She continued: “Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children – and all children in this nation – to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
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In addition to aligning the Obamas' story with the country's, the opening night program was meant to showcase the Democrats' broad, multicultural body politic, with speeches from prominent black, Asian American and Hispanic figures.
Even with an emotion-filled appearance by an ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy, Monday night's spotlight was trained firmly on Michelle Obama, an accomplished hospital executive, lawyer and mother of two.
She has become a lightning rod for the right, largely for a comment she made months ago about how this campaign was the first time she had been proud of the United States. She and the campaign later qualified that remark, insisting she meant to say that she has never been as proud as she is now.
After that controversy, Michelle Obama went on a public-relations blitz, appearing on shows such as “The View” and on the covers of magazines aimed at women and African Americans, and by giving what had been unheard-of access to the Obamas' two young daughters, Malia and Sasha. She also seemed to lower her profile, even saying at one point that she was “taking some cues” from Laura Bush, the reserved first lady.
The question prior to her address Monday night was what role she would fill: the blunt-spoken saleswoman for her husband, the more traditional, non-confrontational spouse, or some hybrid of the two.
Delegates said they viewed the prime-time speech as her chance to prove to voters across the country that she's just like them.
“They will look for a first lady they can identify with,” said Sean Bruno, a delegate from New Orleans. “Someone that's just like them – a mother, a wife. Coming across as genuine, that's going to be key.”
Earl Hilliard Jr., an Alabama state legislator and a convention delegate, added, “This will be important for her to show that she's real.”
Michelle Obama clearly aimed for that, telling the convention that “each of us also comes here tonight by way of our own improbable journey.” She came, she said, as a sister, a wife, a mother and a daughter.
“My mother's love has always been a sustaining force for our family, and one of my greatest joys is seeing her integrity, her compassion and her intelligence reflected in my own daughters,” she said.
While much has been made of her glamour – some have even likened her to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – Michelle Obama emphasized her middle-class roots.
She and her brother grew up with a father who, despite suffering from multiple sclerosis, supported the family on the salary he earned tending boilers at a city water-filtration plant. She attended a public school in Chicago before going to Princeton University and Harvard Law School.
Michelle Obama was out more than anything to humanize her husband, and share the side of him – and one of her – the public doesn't always see.
“In the end, after all that's happened these past 19 months, the Barack Obama I know today is the same man I fell in love with 19 years ago,” she said. “He's the same man who drove me and our new baby daughter home from the hospital 10 years ago this summer, inching along at a snail's pace, peering anxiously at us in the rearview mirror, feeling the whole weight of her future in his hands, determined to give her everything he'd struggled so hard for himself, determined to give her what he never had: the affirming embrace of a father's love.”