Mrs. Obama talks about herself and her country.
11:00 PM, Feb 18, 2008 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
By now one passage from her speech has received much attention. She said:
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:
It was a remarkably un-self aware moment. If it's true that her scores didn't merit her admission to Princeton and Harvard, then rather than having someone trying to hold her back, it seems that someone was willing to take a chance on Michelle Obama. And that faith was rewarded: Even though her test scores weren't particularly outstanding, she thrived in elite settings and has had, by all accounts, an impressive professional career, too.
But Mrs. Obama seems to both accept such a benefit of the doubt and then decry something that sounds a lot like the soft bigotry of low expectations. And she presents her academic credentials as a triumph over some nebulous group of people. When she talks about "grabbing her seat at the table" and finding that there was no "magic" in the other people who had also earned their way there, it sounds uncomfortably like she is dismissive of others who might not have had the help she received.
Or perhaps it's just her reaction to a sense that there have been many people trying to stop the ascent of her and her husband. (If such people exist, they've been spectacularly unsuccessful.) Talking about Barack's Senate campaign, in which he ran unopposed by a serious Republican challenger, Michelle said that the couple learned that "when power is confronted with real change, they'll say anything to stop it." There "they" go again.
Instead of seeing America as a place which afforded her the opportunity to create a blessed life, Mrs. Obama seems to view it as a place where some "people" are always trying to hold her back. Whoever these "people" are, we should be glad they haven't been successful. Michelle Obama's progress is--despite her telling of it--an inspirational story that should make us proud of America, not frustrated by, and scornful of, it. It says something about her view of this nation, and of her husband and herself, that she seems to find it so difficult--their own experience notwithstanding--to feel gratitude for and pride in her country.
Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.