Last night, Michelle Obama delivered what by many accounts was the best speech not just of the opening night of the Democratic Convention but of either convention to date. As David Gergen put it on CNN, “If they have two more nights like this, they can probably break this race open.”
Gergen’s enthusiasm aside, statements by spouses do not swing elections. (The exception may have been Hillary Clinton’s 1992 rescue operation on “60 Minutes,” in which she stalwartly defended her husband against philandering charges.) But in her well-written, well-delivered speech, the current First Lady nonetheless accomplished something important, reminding a rapt audience in Charlotte and tens of millions watching at home that she and her husband are very much in the modern American mainstream, drawing upon this nation’s traditional values to guide both their private lives as well as their political sentiments.
Even those who disagree strongly with those political sentiments should be able to acknowledge that Obama and his wife are quintessentially, honestly American, and that Obama’s story reflects much of what is best about this nation. Whatever their final verdict of his presidency, for example, historians will marvel that the first black person elected to the White House was elected just seven years after the attacks of 2001, and that he was named Barack Hussein Obama. They will attribute that success, quite accurately, to an American generosity of spirit, a true example of American exceptionalism, even as they are also forced to note the sour paranoia that it inspired in some quarters.
As Obama himself put it in a 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”
That’s the part that some conservatives cannot accept. To acknowledge that Barack Obama is just as American as they are is to acknowledge the ways in which their America has changed, and they cannot bring themselves to embrace those changes. In their minds, to do so would be to lose an America that has already gone, transformed into something still true to its roots but recognizably different, as it has always been different.
Instead, they flock in large numbers to the demogogic “2016: Obama’s America,” seeking reassurance — no matter how absurd — that this Obama is indeed something different, something unAmerican and even anti-American, and that their own deep-set suspicions are valid.
That is not the Obama that most of their fellow citizens see. It was certainly not the person whom his wife described to them last night. And it’s sad. Those who instinctively reject not just Obama’s policies — which are of course subject to fierce and honest debate — but Obama as an American are in fact alienating themselves from their own country. They are defining themselves out of its mainstream, and by doing so they lose what they are trying so passionately to retain.
– Jay Bookman