Wednesday, September 05, 2012

MIchelle brings Obama's story home

In his bid to move the political center back to the left in the wake of the Reagan revolution, Obama has always relied on an idealized abstract of American history, casting it as a story of ever-expanding commitment to shared prosperity -- prosperity shared ever more widely.  It's an oral slideshow, a series of historical tableaus delivered with incantatory parallel phrasing and refrain. In his speech on election night 2008, for example, he invoked a 106 year-old African American voter as a witness to the panorama:
She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.
Toward the end of her speech tonight, Michelle Obama deployed the same kind of narrative, with the same political message:

If farmers and blacksmiths could win independence from an empire…if immigrants could leave behind everything they knew for a better life on our shores…if women could be dragged to jail for seeking the vote…if a generation could defeat a depression, and define greatness for all time…if a young preacher could lift us to the mountaintop with his righteous dream…and if proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love…then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American Dream.
Michelle, however, did a better job than her husband generally does connecting his personal history -- and her own -- to that alleged national commitment to shared prosperity and equal opportunity.  More than most First Ladies or would be First Ladies, she integrated her story of who her husband is with her story of what this country is -- and how he sees it. Weaving three narrative strands, she cast herself and Obama as beneficiaries of their parents' sacrifice, and as parents determined to provide the same for their children, and then he (implicitly) as the nation's father fighting to give that opportunity to all the nation's children  (and parents struggling to give it to their children).

She let down the Great Father mantle on Obama's shoulders subtly, in that the first emotional centerpiece of the speech was her tribute to her own father (my emphasis):
My father was a pump operator at the city water plant, and he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when my brother and I were young.

And even as a kid, I knew there were plenty of days when he was in pain…I knew there were plenty of mornings when it was a struggle for him to simply get out of bed.

But every morning, I watched my father wake up with a smile, grab his walker, prop himself up against the bathroom sink, and slowly shave and button his uniform.

And when he returned home after a long day’s work, my brother and I would stand at the top of the stairs to our little apartment, patiently waiting to greet him…watching as he reached down to lift one leg, and then the other, to slowly climb his way into our arms.

But despite these challenges, my dad hardly ever missed a day of work…he and my mom were determined to give me and my brother the kind of education they could only dream of.

And when my brother and I finally made it to college, nearly all of our tuition came from student loans and grants.

But my dad still had to pay a tiny portion of that tuition himself.

And every semester, he was determined to pay that bill right on time, even taking out loans when he fell short.
He was so proud to be sending his kids to college…and he made sure we never missed a registration deadline because his check was late.

You see, for my dad, that’s what it meant to be a man.
But that working class hero's commitment and love, in her narrative, was writ even larger, through a miracle of expanded opportunity, in her husband:
Well, today, after so many struggles and triumphs and moments that have tested my husband in ways I never could have imagined, I have seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are – it reveals who you are.

You see, I’ve gotten to see up close and personal what being president really looks like.

And I’ve seen how the issues that come across a President’s desk are always the hard ones – the problems where no amount of data or numbers will get you to the right answer…the judgment calls where the stakes are so high, and there is no margin for error.

And as President, you can get all kinds of advice from all kinds of people.

But at the end of the day, when it comes time to make that decision, as President, all you have to guide you are your values, and your vision, and the life experiences that make you who you are.

So when it comes to rebuilding our economy, Barack is thinking about folks like my dad and like his grandmother.

He’s thinking about the pride that comes from a hard day’s work.

That’s why he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to help women get equal pay for equal work.

That’s why he cut taxes for working families and small businesses and fought to get the auto industry back on its feet.

That’s how he brought our economy from the brink of collapse to creating jobs again – jobs you can raise a family on, good jobs right here in the United States of America.

When it comes to the health of our families, Barack refused to listen to all those folks who told him to leave health reform for another day, another president.

He didn’t care whether it was the easy thing to do politically – that’s not how he was raised – he cared that it was the right thing to do.
 He was committed, in her telling, because he, in partnership with her, lived the struggle:

He did it because he believes that here in America, our grandparents should be able to afford their medicine…our kids should be able to see a doctor when they’re sick…and no one in this country should ever go broke because of an accident or illness.

And he believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care…that’s what my husband stands for.

When it comes to giving our kids the education they deserve, Barack knows that like me and like so many of you, he never could’ve attended college without financial aid.

And believe it or not, when we were first married, our combined monthly student loan bills were actually higher than our mortgage.

We were so young, so in love, and so in debt.

That’s why Barack has fought so hard to increase student aid and keep interest rates down, because he wants every young person to fulfill their promise and be able to attend college without a mountain of debt.
So young, so in love, and so in debt...that was another centerpiece, and one of several moments where Michelle subtly contrasted Obama's biography with Romney's, suggesting that he'd lived the common struggles and was committed to ensuring that those who struggled have the means to succeed.  It was masterfully done.  She cast him as a man in full, committed to the shared prosperity that is (in their telling) the American project.

We've been here before: how Obama frames our history
What had to work with

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I always eagerly await your take on major speeches. In so many ways she contrasted the man she knows with his opponent without ever mentioning his name. The themes of constancy, consistency and opportunity were emphasized again and again. More tellingly, by ignoring the difficulties that each suffered by reason of their race, she made their stories universal and American, without screaming that yes, Barack Obama is an American. Masterful.