Michelle Obama: Liberal Family Values without Apology or Rancor

I’m not a huge fan of the whole First Lady convention speech thing. I wish we would let politicians be politicians, and that we would let political spouses be whatever it is that they wish to be, instead of dragging them up to various podiums to be surrogates or props. I’ll make an exception for Michelle Obama’s beautifully crafted and delivered speech last night.

In part–but only in part–it was effective for the same reasons that Mrs. Romney’s speech was effective in Tampa. Both women checked off the usual boxes. Michelle Obama humanized her husband. Like Mrs. Romney, Mrs. Obama reminded people of her husband’s appealing relationship with his family. Michelle Obama also landed some artful and well-deserved jabs at Mitt Romney, too.

Michelle Obama’s speech went further, though. She accomplished something else of more permanent value. Without apology or rancor, she presented a vision of liberal family values rooted in her own biography that should resonate with millions of people. It certainly resonated with me. Her defense of community, inclusion, social mobility, and the dignity of work was the perfect counterpoint to the self-regarding “you built it!” mentality expressed at the Republican convention…..

From the dais at the Republican National Convention, Paul Ryan thundered against health reform as an entitlement that we hadn’t even asked for. As I noted a few days ago at healthinsurance.org, the “we” to which he referred left out some of his listeners:

The delegates may not have noticed, but this speech left out dozens of people at the back of the convention hall. These men and women spent day and night being ignored in empty speeches as they emptied trash cans, recycled campaign litter, and cleaned up whatever chewing gum, half-eaten hot dogs, and spilled soda that feted GOP delegates mindlessly left behind.

According to the Huffington Post, these janitors make about $7.67 per hour, minus a weekly uniform fee. Their lives and perspectives went largely un-discussed. This is also a group of people who often go uninsured. After 2014, their low incomes will qualify them for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Unfortunately, Florida Governor Rick Scott pledges to turn down billions of federal dollars made available to expand Medicaid under health reform.

Speaking from a similar podium, Michelle Obama expressed a simple but compelling argument for progressive policies:

When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. No–you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.

Growing up on Chicago’s south side, barely a bicycle ride from my own office, she knows something about blue-collar people like her own father, who buttoned up a uniform every day, didn’t get paid a whole lot of money, but who did an important job. As she put things:

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…

>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…and we were taught to value everyone’s contribution and treat everyone with respect.

>Those are the values Barack and I – and so many of you – are trying to pass on to our own children…

Me, too.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.