In simple terms, the FLOTUS killed it!
To be sure, there have been good speeches by other contenders to be the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS). Ann Romney’s performance was the strongest speech of all the Republican speeches during this year’s convention. But in terms of doing what a speech like this needs to do – support and showcase your husband’s Presidential credentials – this was a masterclass.
By all accounts the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) largely wrote the speech herself, starting her preparation a month earlier, as a result, this was a highly personal speech, that felt earnest and sincere.
The theme for the whole speech was quite profound, yet brilliantly simple: The personal is political.
Firstly, as a wife and non-politician, the nation expects that her perspective of her husband will be deeply personal, so she hits all the right buttons by largely focusing on the personal qualities and characteristics of her husband, which is what the audience wants.
Yet, secondly and most importantly, it was incredibly politically astute: Barack Obama has very strong personal favourability ratings (people like him generally), yet his ratings on his handling of the economy are low and thus make the economy his weakest and most likely point of attack for opponents. So how do you protect that flank? By telling the electorate that those values that you like and respect in the man, are the same values that he is applying to his job as President, including in his handling of the economy.
She told us that Barack was raised to understand and respect hard work, honest endeavour and fairness and that’s how he has approached his work as a President.
That is why she spent considerable time setting out his and her ordinary upbringing. Why she reminded everyone that he picked her up for their first date in a car that had holes in the floor through which she could see the road underneath.
She then identified certain political choices that he has made: Healthcare, right to life, bailing out the auto industry, simply as decisions he had to make, not because of cheap political point-scoring, but because that is the kind of man that he is, the man that you (the electorate) like and respect.
“He didn’t care that it was the easy thing to do politically, no, that’s not how he was raised. He did it because it was the right thing to do”
It was encapsulated by one of the best lines ever delivered in such a keynote political speech and one that will undoubtedly be played over and over again:
“Being President doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are”
It meant that although she was talking about politics, she wasn’t talking politics. It was playing the dutiful wife (staying out of affairs that don’t concern her) yet framing the discussion in a way that transcends the ordinary politics of the day. She didn’t even mention Mitt Romney or her counterpart, Ann Romney, once.
She continued in the same vein throughout:
He understands the American Dream, she told us, because he has lived the dream. He feels your struggle, she highlighted, because he and I have truly struggled. He turned down high paying jobs to do community work. Why? Because for Barack “success isn’t about how much money you make, it is about the difference you make in people’s lives”.
She reminded us that Barack Obama sits to dinner with the family every night. Why?
Because the electorate like their Presidents to be good honest family men.
Remarkably, she even managed to reflect her husband’s (less than catchy) new slogan ‘Forward’, talking about how he is merely following the example of his mother and grandparents, who got up every day no matter how hard the challenges to patiently keep moving forward and that that is what he would continue to do every day: Keep moving forward.
And then lest we thought that the whole speech was all about her husband and not a little bit about her, she came back to personal humility.
“At the end of the day, my most important title is still: Mom in Chief”
Content wise, but for a line about her husband not caring if you are Democrat or Republican (which even the fervent audience didn’t quite buy) this was basically faultless.
It moved seamlessly through the classic elements of a speech: engaging Opening, clear Introduction, substantial Main Body, climactic conclusion, satisfying Close – and it did it with style.
As if it wasn’t enough to have great content, the FLOTUS’s delivery was a masterclass.
Great public speaking involves taking what you do naturally in a private setting and replicating that in the unnatural public arena. And she did that, because she made it feel like we were all around the kitchen table having Sunday lunch listening to words of wisdom from ‘Mom-in-chief’.
Her pace was patient, deliberate, yet languid, picking up momentum to make an important point, slowing down when the words needed to sink in.
There were rhetorical flourishes that were reminiscent of a Baptist preacher or even the didactic style of Toni Morrison when delivering one of her epic poems (listen for how often she prefaces a critical point with ‘you see’).
The biggest cheer (and there were many) came when she summarised the history of the people of the nation (being sure to include all the different peoples of the country), from the immigrants that came to America in search of a better life, to the blacksmiths that fought for independence, to Martin Luther King talking about the mountaintop, and she reflected this strong passage by building up pace and purpose as she delivered the words.
Whether you agree with the words or the ideas she put forward, it was nearly impossible not to feel swept up in the energy of her delivery. She wasn’t even put off her stride by a heckler, professing his love, part way through.
From the beginning, she had people smiling warmly, much of the way through many heads were nodding and bobbing in complete transfixed agreement, by the end she had even grown men openly wiping away tears.
Most of all, this was a speech that had great heart. It felt authentic and sincere. It tried to and did transcend petty politics, whilst at the same time being highly personal.
It tugged at heart strings masterfully by using universal themes that all people could relate to, and she then tied those into the idea that if you believe those things about yourself and the country, then you want a man that believes those things to.
Michelle Obama came to the speech with sky-high approval ratings (higher than those of the President himself, Mitt Romney, Ann Romney, and both Vice -Presidential candidates). With this speech, those ratings will have gone into another universe.
No pressure Barack!