Denver — Near the end of Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention Monday night, I got an e-mail from a friend who had been with me at another speech by Mrs. Obama, in Charlotte, North Carolina, last May, on the eve of that state’s primary. “This isn’t the Michelle we know,” my friend said. And indeed, Mrs. Obama’s speech to the delegates here in Denver was worlds away from her address in Charlotte.
In Denver, Michelle Obama described America as a place of hope, a place where people find success during the course of “improbable journeys.” In Charlotte, her America was a dark and ugly place, where people who work hard are knocked down by sinister forces — a place where even young children burst into tears when they realize the deck is stacked against them.
In Denver, Mrs. Obama said, “My piece of the American Dream is a blessing hard won by those who came before me.” Those forebears, she explained, were “driven by the same conviction that drove my dad to get up an hour early each day to painstakingly dress himself for work — the same conviction that drives the men and women I’ve met all across this country…That’s why I love this country.”
In Charlotte, Mrs. Obama said, “We’re still living in a time and in a nation where the bar is set, right?…You start working hard and sacrificing and you think you’re getting close to that bar, you’re working and you’re struggling, and then what happens? They raise the bar…keep it just out of reach.”
Had something changed in the last few months? In the early primaries, Mrs. Obama often gave complaining speeches. It was in late February that she said the now-famous words, “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” In other speeches, she grumbled — sometimes at length — about having to pay back her college loans. And she, as much as her husband, was associated with the anti-American rants of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
The images began to accumulate. By the later months of the Democratic primary race, when her husband was stumbling to victory after a powerful stretch of wins in February, Mrs. Obama’s approval ratings began to slip. She was still not widely known at the time, but it seemed the more voters got to know her, the more they began to have reservations about her.
In May, the Pew Research Center found that 22 percent of people polled had an unfavorable opinion of Mrs. Obama. In July, an Associated Press poll showed that she had a 35 percent unfavorable rating — versus a 30 percent favorable figure. A couple of weeks ago, a the Rasmussen polling organization found that 43 percent of voters had an unfavorable impression of Mrs. Obama. (Of them, Rasmussen said, 24 percent said they had a very unfavorable view of her.)
The numbers were simply terrible for a candidate’s wife — not all that different from Hillary Clinton’s numbers, even though the former First Lady has been in the spotlight for much longer and was a candidate in her own right.
More recent polls have had slightly better news for Mrs. Obama. A few days ago, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed her with a 30-percent unfavorable rating and a favorable rating that had inched up to 51 percent. Still, Mrs. Obama’s unfavorable numbers remain significant — and well above those of the Republican would-be First Lady, Cindy McCain.
So here in Denver Mrs. Obama had a job to do. It wasn’t just to introduce Americans to the Obama family or show another side of her husband’s personality. It was to rehabilitate herself, to take the edge of anger and resentment from her public pronouncements and embrace a wholesome, country-loving, American-Dream-living image. And that’s what her speech at the convention was about.