CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Michelle Obama was the overwhelming star of Tuesday night’s Democratic National Convention, delivering a powerful personal narrative about her husband still being the same deeply principled man she fell in love with 23 years ago when they were both broke and watching their families struggle.
Obama’s speech contrasted with barnburners from the rest of the night, which attacked GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney on everything from his Swiss bank accounts to flip-flopping on abortion. But the first lady’s remarks also touched on the message that others, including the keynote speaker, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, made earlier: Struggle and success aren’t just Republican ideals, and there’s nothing un-American about getting help.
Obama’s speech, like Ann Romney’s at the Republican National Convention last week, focused on her relationship with a candidate that she knows as a husband and a father. But while Romney’s talk of saving money by eating tuna and pasta fell flat, Obama’s stories of student loan debt and family hardships made for a more convincing case that the can relate to middle-class struggles.
During her remarks, the first lady said she knew Barack would make an “extraordinary” president when he first ran in 2008, but in her quieter moments, she worried about the toll the spotlight would take on their daughters. She said she feared losing “the simple joys” she shared with her family.
“Saturdays at soccer games, Sundays at grandma’s house,” Obama said. “And a date night for Barack and me was either dinner or a movie, because as an exhausted mom, I couldn’t stay awake for both.”
Obama said she loved the life they had, and she didn’t want to lose it because “I loved Barack just the way he was.”
She described first dating Barack and painted a side to him that most people would find hard to imagine.
He was a guy who “picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by in a hole in the passenger side door,” Obama said to laughs. “He was the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he’d found in a dumpster, and whose only pair of decent shoes was half-size too small.”
Still, she said knew she’d found “a kindred spirit” in Barack when they talked about their families. She grew up with a father with multiple sclerosis who would “prop himself up against the bathroom sink, and slowly shave and button his uniform,” and a brother who, like her, relied on student loans to go to college.
Her story, said Obama, was just like Barack’s story.
“I realized that even though he’d grown up all the way across the country, he’d been brought up just like me. Barack was raised by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills, and by grandparents who stepped in when she needed help,” she said.
Now, four years later, after watching her husband go through “so many struggles and triumphs,” Obama said she learned firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are.
“It reveals who you are,” she said. “As president, all you have to guide you are your values and your vision and the life experiences that make you who you are.”
The first lady kept a measured tone through the speech until the end. She choked up as she talked about her most important title still being “mom-in-chief,” and as she said, repeatedly, that she loves her husband more now than when he first became president, and even more than she did when they first met 23 years ago.
“Today, I have none of the worries from four years ago about whether Barack and I were doing what’s best for our girls,” she said. “We must once again come together and stand together for the man we can trust to keep moving this country forward. My husband, our president, President Barack Obama.”
Obama got a standing ovation from the crowd, and as the camera panned around the room, several people visibly wept.
Castro also provoked a strong response from the crowd, which drowned out his speech at some points with cheering.
His message was similar to Obama’s, speaking about his family and how he got where he is. He took a softer tone than previous speakers took toward Romney, but his speech was critical nonetheless and stuck to the theme of the night’s attacks: Romney can’t be trusted.
As Castro discussed his grandmother and his mother, a civil rights activist, he mocked Romney for telling a college student to start a business by borrowing money from his parents. “Gee, why didn’t I think of that?” Castro said. “I don’t think Governor Romney meant any harm. I think he’s a good guy. He just has no idea how good he’s had it.”
Castro didn’t address Latinos specifically, other than praising the president’s recent directive on immigration, but he and the Obama campaign have acknowledged the significance of his appearance. Castro has a narrative similar to Obama’s: both born to single mothers, both Harvard Law grads, both early entrants into politics. His speech may give him the boost Obama received when he addressed Democrats in 2004. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina promised on Monday that Castro’s speech would be memorable, telling members of the Convention Hispanic Caucus, “You are in for one of those moments that, 10 years from now, you are going to say, ‘I was there to hear when he gave that speech.’”
Castro took some of the same rhetorical turns as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) did last week in his address to the Republican National Convention, but to very different conclusions. Both men spoke about their immigrant grandparents — Castro’s grandmother was born in Mexico, while Rubio’s grandfather was from Cuba — and their parents’ blue-collar work.
On his father, who worked at a bar, Rubio said, “He stood behind a bar in the back of the room all those years, so one day I could stand behind a podium in the front of a room.”
Castro’s praise of his mother, a civil rights activist, used a similar line. “My mother fought for civil rights so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone,” he said.
He said he got there not just through the hard work of himself and his family, but with help from society, through scholarships that allowed him to attend Stanford University and Harvard Law. He said Republicans don’t support those kinds of opportunities for people like him.
“What we don’t accept is the idea that some folks won’t even get a chance,” Castro said of Democrats. “And the thing is, Mitt Romney and the Republican Party are perfectly comfortable with that America. In fact, that’s exactly what they’re promising us.”