By Niall Stanage, THE HILL, 08/18/20
© Greg Nash
It was Michelle Obama’s night — again.
The former first lady was the standout speaker, by some distance, on the first night of the Democratic National Convention Monday.
Obama took the fight directly to President Trump in a pre-taped but emotive speech. She accused him of being “clearly in over his head” and being “the wrong president for our country.”
“He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us,” she said.
In making the case for Joe Biden, who will officially become his party’s presidential nominee on Thursday evening, Obama praised the former vice president’s capacity for empathy, his decency and his humility.
They were, she said, all qualities that she had got to see close-up during her husband’s presidency. The implication — that she also considers Trump to be devoid of those attributes — was crystal clear.
The former first lady’s addresses to Democratic conventions are, at this stage, becoming a quadrennial highlight. Four years ago in Philadelphia, her “when they go low, we go high” speech was as effective as any delivered during the convention that anointed Hillary Clinton.
Obama also occupies a unique role in American life and popular culture. According to Gallup polling, she has been the most admired woman in the nation for the past two years. Her memoir, Becoming, was a massive commercial success, as was the arena tour that followed its release.
Even Trump and his campaign, usually eager for verbal brawls with almost anyone, have been reluctant to take her on directly — a pattern that continued on Monday. When the Trump campaign sent a mass email with the subject line “tonight’s line up,” hers was the only name of five speakers that did not have an insult attached.
Obama reiterated during her speech that she dislikes the business of politics. That stance may help her personal popularity among more centrist or politically moderate Americans. Among Democrats, there is widespread acceptance — and disappointment — that she has no interest in seeking office.
But she did insist that people be diligent about voting. Those who intended to vote by mail should request their ballot “tonight,” she insisted, while those who wanted to vote in person should be willing to stay the course in long lines. She also warned anyone against being tempted to vote for a third party candidate, though that seems less of an issue in this election than it did four years ago.
Obama, who has sometimes seemed more willing than her husband to address racial issues directly, also talked about the killing of George Floyd, the protests that followed, and the president’s reaction to them.
“Stating the simple fact that a black life matters is still met with derision from the nation’s highest office,” she said.
The visceral force of Obama’s address overshadowed everything else from the first day of the convention, which has been altered dramatically by the coronavirus crisis.
Virtually no element of the convention is taking place in Milwaukee, as had been originally planned. The first night had more in common with a telethon — in good ways and bad — than with the traditional glitz of a regular convention.
Actor Eva Longoria Bastón anchored the proceedings, and the early stages of the evening were notable as much for music as for speeches. There were taped performances from Leon Bridges and Maggie Rogers, as well as a video montage set to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.”
The bigger political moments came later in the evening, including from Biden’s most serious rival for the nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
There has been little of the rancor this year that marked relations between Sanders’s supporters and Hillary Clinton’s backers four years ago. Instead, the veteran left-winger gave an emphatic case for the need to elect Biden and oust Trump.
“The future of our democracy is at stake. The future of our economy is at stake. The future of our planet is at stake,” Sanders said. “The price of failure is just too great to imagine.”
There were other high-profile office-holders who lined up to praise Biden or hit Trump — New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer (D) among them. But it is hard to make speeches to an empty room appear compelling when they lack the atmosphere that a crowd provides. Obama was the only one to fully transcend those limitations.
The convention’s producers did their best to liven up the proceedings. In a pre-taped package, many of Biden’s campaign rivals expressed their support for him in quick succession.
Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, laid out his case for why he was deserting his usual party affiliation to back Biden. Kasich said he had “a responsibility to my country.” He also sought to reassure other disaffected Republicans that he did not believe Biden would “turn sharp left.”
The first evening was notable, generally, for the care taken to avoid any semblance of left-wing radicalism. Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) were two of the most prominent speakers. Both are centrists; neither can be tagged as a coastal elitist.
One huge question that still looms over the event is whether a virtual convention — inevitably stilted in parts — suffers in the TV ratings by comparison with years past.
In that way, as in others, Michelle Obama’s charisma might have come to the rescue on Monday.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.