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Michelle's America

Mrs. Obama talks about herself and her country.

11:00 PM, Feb 18, 2008 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Madison, Wisconsin

Roughly 600 people gathered at the Capitol Theater in Madison's downtown Overture Center yesterday to listen to Michelle Obama make a pitch for her husband's presidential bid. They were treated to a revealing glimpse into the mind of the candidate's wife.

By now one passage from her speech has received much attention. She said:

For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. And I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction. And just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment I've seen people who are hungry to be unified around some basic, common issues and it's made me proud.

It was an extraordinary declaration for a 44-year-old woman. She expanded on it a bit later, claiming that "Life for regular folks has gotten worse over the course of my lifetime, through Republican and Democratic administrations. It hasn't gotten much better."

Do these comments provide a glimpse of her general political worldview--one that is surprisingly critical of America for the wife of a presidential candidate? Or do they suggest a certain narcissism about the Obamas and their view of themselves? Or both?

In many ways, Michelle Obama's stump speech is reminiscent of her husband's. She dwells at length on the issue of change and frequently talks in the idiom of political self-help. She worried that "We spend more time thinking about what can't be done, what can't change, what won't work. And the problem with that is that it cuts us off from one another in our own communities. It's cut us off from the rest of the world. And the sad part about it is we're passing on all these fears, this cynicism--we're passing it on to the next generation." "Everything," she explained, "begins and ends with a little bit of hope and a whole lot of dreaming."

Mrs. Obama's remarks were also light on policy--which is understandable. After all, she's not the one standing for office. But she showed something like contempt for even the idea of actual policy talk. "I know voters like a plan," she said. "What's the details, tell me about your policies. Plans are important, I agree. . . . But a lot of this stuff isn't rocket science."

Instead, she voiced deeper concerns: "Barack knows that at some level there's a hole in our souls," she said. This was a variation on her normal line that "Barack Obama is the only person in this race who understands that, that before we can work on the problems we have to fix our souls. Our souls are broken in this nation."

Michelle Obama obviously believes her husband is up to this challenge. (In Nevada she told a crowd that "Barack is one of the smartest men we will see in our lifetime.")

Mrs. Obama also spent some time during her Madison remarks dwelling on her own life. In a passage attacking No Child Left Behind, she claimed that "If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn't be here. I guarantee you that."

She returned to the subject of her test scores and education later in the speech. She began by telling the crowd how she met a poor, presumably black, girl in South Carolina. Talking about this young girl, Mrs. Obama said:

She also knows that she is so much better than the limited expectations that this nation has for her. . . . She is hoping that the grownups in this country see some use for hope. Because that's all she's got. And she's dreaming that we'll get it right. And I know, because I was that little girl.

Now all my life I have confronted people who had a certain expectation of me. Every step of the way, there was somebody there telling me what I couldn't do. Applied to Princeton. "You can't go there, your test scores aren't high enough." I went. I graduated with departmental honors. And then I wanted to go to Harvard. And that was probably a little too tough for me. I didn't even know why they said that.

But I could go through every curve and twist and turn of my life and find somebody that was telling me, "Lower your expectations. Set your sights low. You're not ready. You can't do that." And every time I pushed past other people's limited expectations of me, and reached for things that I knew I could do, and grabbed my seat at the table that others felt so entitled to, what I learned is that there's no magic to these people who feel so much more ready than me. I'm just as ready--always just as prepared--as anyone at that table.