CHARLOTTE, NC — From the moment first lady Michelle Obama strode onto the stage at the Times Warner Cable Arena Tuesday night, she held her audience in the palm of her hand. Hundreds of “We love Michelle” signs bobbed up and down, while thundering applause made it impossible for her to begin her speech.
But eventually she launched into a heartfelt and impassioned defense of her husband and the American Dream, along the way delivering a few body blows to his challenger, whose name was never mentioned in her address.
“I can honestly say that … Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago. He’s the same man who started his career by turning down high paying jobs and instead working in struggling neighborhoods … because for Barack success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”
Republican nominee and wealthy businessman Mitt Romney has made much of Obama’s lack of experience in the private sector, and has repeatedly slammed the president for “attacking success.”
The first lady wanted to make sure that everyone who heard her knew that when it comes to the American Dream, the bottom line is not the only, or best, metric.
While Romney came from privilege, Michelle Obama implied, she and her husband came from common folk who know what it’s like to cope with daunting bills and inadequate resources.
She recounted their early years, when “our combined monthly student loan bills were actually higher than our mortgage.”
“We were so young, so in love — and so in debt,” she laughed.
Obama is the president of the whole country, she was saying, not just the elite. He is someone who understands struggle and achievement, and who works hard to bring those same chances to others.
“Barack knows the American Dream because he’s lived it,” she said. “He wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love.”
Support for same-sex marriage has been a wedge issue for the two major parties, with the Republicans including defense of marriage in their recently adopted platform.
But speaker after speaker brought up the Democrats’ support for gay rights, from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who boasted about the Commonwealth’s status as the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, to Colorado Congressman Jared Polis, who began his speech by saying “I am Jewish. I am gay. I am a father. I am a son.”
But the real issue of the night, and, in fact, of the entire day, was women’s rights. Obama enjoys a significant advantage with women voters, and in this tense and extremely close race, he needs to ensure that it stays that way.
Lilly Ledbetter, who sued a major corporation for equal pay and lost on a technicality, devoted her speech to a defense of women’s employment rights, while also getting some digs in against the Republican rival.
“Women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar men make,” she said. “Maybe 23 cents doesn't sound like a lot to someone with a Swiss bank account, Cayman Island investments and an IRA worth tens of millions of dollars. But Governor Romney, when we lose 23 cents every hour, every day, every paycheck, every job, over our entire lives, what we lose can't just be measured in dollars.”
One of Obama’s first actions as president was to sign the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for women to file claims.
But equal pay shared center stage with contraception and abortion.
Earlier in the day, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund held a rally for women’s reproductive rights. It was a sea of pink as speakers including Newark Mayor Cory Booker and actress Lisa Edelstein spoke up for a woman’s right to control her body.
“How can [the Republicans] say they love women when they want to deny them health care,” said Booker, (photographed, right, on an iPhone by Jean MacKenzie/GlobalPost).
The issue was prominent during the evening lineup as well.
Barely a speaker in the five-hour program left the podium without making reference to a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions.
Nancy Keenan, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), was the most direct.
“We believe in funding family planning because it helps to prevent unintended pregnancy,” she said. “We believe that a woman considering an abortion should not be forced to have an ultrasound against her will. We believe that rape is rape. We believe that a woman should make health care decisions with her family, her doctor, and her God. And we believe that there’s no place in that room for politicians — especially politicians who don’t know how women’s bodies work.”
The last comment, which drew long and loud applause, was a reference to Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, who caused a furor last month by saying that women almost never get pregnant as a result of “legitimate rape.”
But the star of the show was, unquestionably, Michelle Obama, who also weighed in on the issue.
“[Barack] 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,” she said.
In the end, it was Michelle’s day. Looking confident and lovely in a sleeveless, pink-and-gold designer dress, she wowed the crowd and injected a much-needed dose of enthusiasm into what has been a difficult and, at times, dispiriting campaign.
She did not mention the bad economy, obstructionist Congress, fruitless foreign wars or any of the other issues that have impeded progress and given her husband’s first term a sense of lost opportunity and unfulfilled promise. The first lady kept the rhetoric soaring and the sentiments lofty.
“I know from experience that if I want to leave a better world for my daughters, and all our sons and daughters … if we want to give all of our children a foundation for their dreams, and opportunities worthy of their promise … we must once again come together and stand together for the man we can trust to keep moving this great country forward … my husband, our president, President Barack Obama.”
(See the transcript of Michelle Obama’s speech, posted by ABC News.)
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