Michelle Obama Makes Her Pitch to Conservatives

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Sept. 5 2012 12:11 PM

Michelle Obama Makes Her Pitch to Conservatives

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Michelle Obama, everyone's mom.

Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images.

The Democratic Convention will always be a better bellwether of conservative sentiment than its Republican counterpart. Here we see what conservative tropes even liberals are afraid to jettison when standing before a country over which they wish to preside. What we learned last night, in between some potted history lessons about this open, empty, apparently uninhabited expanse of land those brave pioneers once landed upon, was that trading with non-Americans is suspect and that Michelle Obama has never aspired to anything but to be the most powerful mother on the planet. Says the first lady:

Our life before moving to Washington was filled with simple joys: … Saturdays at soccer games, Sundays at Grandma's house … and a date night for Barack and me was either dinner or a movie, because as an exhausted mom, I couldn't stay awake for both.

Delegates react to the first lady's speech.
Delegates react to the first lady's speech.

Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos for Slate.

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What we never learn, in this 3,000-word speech, is why Michelle Obama was so exhausted. Had she just finished a three-hour marathon? Was she ill? Pregnant once again? That she had spent the day corporate lawyering, or acting as an assistant to the mayor of Chicago, or filling various executive positions with the University of Chicago Hospitals, is not a detail she chooses to share. You would never know from last night’s speech that Obama had ever exerted herself in any way in exchange for legal tender.

The politics here are not hard to discern; last night’s speech was about the virtues of being poor, which corporate lawyers tend not to be, and about out-traditionaling the Romneys. If you’re on team blue, Michelle’s speech was a triumph, and progressive ideas about the role of women were just one more casualty the Obamas were willing to sacrifice. Michelle Obama’s last Democratic counterpart, you’ll recall, spearheaded an ill-fated health care reform plan. Bill Clinton campaigned on “two for the price of one.” Here’s Hillary before she had to make amends by offering up some cookie recipes:

I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.

Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama are different women, and they may well have different opinions about the relationship of education and work to a woman’s identity. This was not a politically popular thing to say in 1992, and the current first lady does not want to fight that particular fight in 2012. She may be pushing in the other direction:

You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still "mom-in-chief."

What can this possibly mean? “In-chief” implies a chain of command, a martial order, as if Michelle Obama were ready to lead legions of subservient moms to do battle against producers of unhealthy snacks. Or else she is the ultimate mother, and we are all her children, which would, admittedly, be spectacular news for the American gene pool. In any case, if your metric for “better off” involves an educated first lady who is not afraid to appear threatening before a liberal audience, the last 12 years have not been kind. 

Kerry Howley's work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and the New York Times Magazine. She is currently finishing a book about consensual violence, ecstatic experience, and the body.