Two Thumbs Up, Way Up, for Michelle Obama’s Speech

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By Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson

This is another in a series of reports from Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Ramesh: I am reflexively against the bonus points we always give to political spouses when they are making political speeches -- as you may recall, I did not much like Ann Romney's speech last week. I did not think Michelle Obama did an especially fine job four years ago at the Democratic convention in Denver.

But boy, did she knock it out of the park last night! If the stutter and the cracking voice at the end were not practiced, they could not have been bettered. (The bit about the president not caring whether people are Democrats or Republicans was a bit much, though.)

Thank goodness the impact of a first lady's speech is so small. We learned that Michelle is an impressive speaker and that she loves her husband. Swing voters may not have either fact in mind on Nov. 6.

I do wonder whether the Democrats' focus last night on abortion will prove quite as helpful as they seem to think. Most voters are not as zealously hostile to abortion as the Republican Party. They do have misgivings about it, though, and the Democrats did not do justice to them, either in their speeches or their platform. They were wise to keep most of the abortion talk out of prime time.

The night's keynote speaker, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, I found underwhelming. He had some affecting passages: His bit about how his mother had held a mop so he could hold a microphone, in its possibly unconscious echo of Senator Marco Rubio's comment about his father last week,was a nice reminder of human truths that transcend party divisions. In general, though he seemed like an old person's idea of what a young person should be like -- or, more to the point, a consultant's idea of what a future candidate should be like.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

 Margaret: She had the hall at hello. Attending a convention means not having to pay attention to events on stage, but holding your own mini-conventions. Michelle Obama's speech was different. No one was chattering in the aisles, or playing Words with Friends on their iPhones.

It’s hard to remember that Michelle was sometimes considered a liability during the last campaign. If black men don’t have a wide range of acceptable behavior,  black women have less. Stop smiling, and you’re angry. It hurt her when she blurted out, in 2008, “For the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback."

That reveals the hazard and limitation on what a spouse can do for a candidate. Barack Obama got elected when she was less popular than she is now, and her high popularity now won't necessarily help get him re-elected (though it can't hurt). A wife’s potential to hurt is greater than to help.

 But we watch Ann Romney and Michelle Obama closely because there is no better window into the soul of a candidate. Michelle is one happy first lady. Make fun of her for tackling childhood obesity, but she gets to have fun doing it -- jumping rope, dancing the Dougie, running a potato sack race with Jimmy Fallon, digging in the White House garden. The rap against her husband doesn’t apply to her: She is not a bit aloof.

In her speech, she veered off track twice: Her discussion about how wonderful her life was before the White House went on too long, coming close to saying what an imposition the presidency was on her. And citing the Lily Ledbetter Act clanged and was unnecessary. More effective, and to the point, was her story of Barack’s grandmother plugging away at her bank for years even as men she trained climbed past her.

There was little head-on talk about the differences between the 1 percent and the 99 percent but she made some subtle points. “We were so young, so in love and so in debt,” she said of her early life with her husband. She gave vivid details about what their families did to propel their children from the working class to the middle class. Who can forget her father painfully getting up each morning to go work the pumps in Chicago despite MS, Michelle and her brother waiting at the top of the stairs he could barely climb each night? She didn’t go straight against the Republican meme that her husband is anti-business, but you could hear an answer to the "we built that" critique when she said that “teachers and janitors contributed to our success."

It was a high-wire act. She started slow and built to a rousing end in an old-fashioned speech instead of a succession of applause lines. She occasionally edged toward melodrama, but wow did she pull it off.

On a personal and superficial note: Those are some arms she has. And the American designer she chose to make her dress last night is a lucky fellow this morning. Who says the Obamas don't try to help small business?

(Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)

-0- Sep/05/2012 15:36 GMT