REPORTING FROM CHARLOTTE — Michelle Obama was already one of the most popular figures in American politics when she stepped on stage in her beautiful pink and grey Tracy Reese dress at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday.
But what she did with her words and oratory last night was just as beautiful as the designer dress she wore. In a 24-minute speech enthusiastically received by the crowd in the arena, the first lady managed to eviscerate Mitt Romney's own convention speech in a searing rebuttal that never mentioned his name.
By detailing her husband's modest upbringing, Obama's brilliantly constructed speech described the president's "values" and "life experiences" in a way that served as a perfect contrast to the Republican nominee.
Last week in Tampa, Romney argued, "The centerpiece of the President's entire re-election campaign is attacking success." Then last night in Charlotte, the first lady responded that the president's childhood family "didn't begrudge anyone else's success or care that others had much more than they did...in fact, they admired it."
But Obama also challenged the narrow definition of success articulated by Romney, the former Bain Capital CEO, again without mentioning the GOP candidate by name. In her own family, she said, "We learned about dignity and decency — that how hard you work matters more than how much you make...that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself." And for the president, she added, "Success isn't about how much money you make, it's about the difference you make in people's lives."
Again, without calling him out by name, the first lady seemed to question Romney's rise to the top of the private-equity world. In her family, she said, "We learned about honesty and integrity — that the truth matters...that you don't take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules...and success doesn't count unless you earn it fair and square." Without saying a negative word, the first lady evoked images of Romney's Swiss bank accounts, offshore tax havens and "vulture capitalism."
Obama also pushed back against the most popular attack from last week's Republican convention — the repeated and purposeful GOP distortion of President Obama's "you didn't build that" comment. Last week in Tampa, Romney told his supporters that our ancestors came to America seeking "freedom to build a business. With their own hands."
But Obama shot back last night with a more inclusive vision of success from her own life story. "We learned about gratitude and humility — that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean," she said.
By touting the president's virtues of humility and community responsibility, the first lady was also able to paint her husband's opponent as a spoiled, out-of-touch plutocrat unwilling to give credit to all the people who helped him out along the way. "Barack knows that like me and like so many of you, he never could've attended college without financial aid," she said. "When we were first married, our combined monthly student loan bills were actually higher than our mortgage," she continued. "We were so young, so in love and so in debt," she added.
And finally, after a week in which Rep. Paul Ryan tried repeatedly to explain his inconsistent statements accusing the president of abandoning a GM auto plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, the first lady spoke of her husband "turning down high paying jobs, and instead working in struggling neighborhoods where a steel plant had shut down."
Those are the values that had influenced President Obama, she said. "I have seen firsthand that being president doesn't change who you are — it reveals who you are," she added. That may have been the most telling comment of all. While Obama and Romney both graduated from Harvard Law School with promising careers ahead of them, they chose different paths because they had different values about success, community and social justice.
So when the auto industry collapsed in 2008, it was not surprising that Obama's values would lead him to help save more than a million jobs while Romney's values would lead him to write a now infamous New York Times op-ed, Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.
In line after line, Obama quietly stated her husband's virtues in a way that unmistakably communicated a contrast to Romney's view of the world. President Obama, she said, "believes that when you've worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity...you do not slam it shut behind you." Does anyone doubt she was calling out Mitt Romney?
And that was the true brilliance of Obama's remarks. There were no stunts, no mystery guests talking to chairs, no re-invented history and no twisted distortions of someone else's words. Her speech simply made the case that Barack Obama had spent his life trying to help others instead of enriching himself. If you want a president who will wake up every day trying to help you out, do you trust the guy who's spent his whole life making a buck or the guy who's spent his life trying to make a difference?
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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