First lady Michelle Obama mounted a robust defense of her husband’s record and character Tuesday night at the opening of the Democratic convention, telling supporters “we are playing a long game here” and urging Americans to give him another term in order to implement the “change” he promised in 2008.
Though Republicans have claimed President Obama cannot run on his record, the first lady – as well as a number of speakers during the opening day in Charlotte – touted such controversial portions of that resume as the federal health care overhaul.
“When it comes to the health of our families, Barack refused to listen to all those folks who told him to leave health reform for another day, another president,” she said. “He didn’t care whether it was the easy thing to do politically. No, that’s not how he was raised. He cared that it was the right thing to do.”
The touting of the health care law, narrowly upheld by the Supreme Court earlier this year, was coupled with testimonials from people who said they had benefited from the policy – and with an earlier address by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who has carried out the law’s implementation.
The first lady’s address, though, was meant as more than a defense of the president’s legislative record. Obama vouched for her husband’s character and persistence with stories only she could tell, and tried to give those who supported him in his history-making 2008 campaign a reason to do so again. She said that, amid a tough campaign, “Barack never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise.”
She continued: “And he reminds me, he reminds me that we are playing a long game here, and that change is hard, and change is slow, and it never happens all at once. But eventually we get there, we always do.”
The first lady lent the personal touch to the party-wide effort to get Obama re-elected at a time when he remains locked in an airtight race against Mitt Romney, who accepted his party’s nomination last week at a convention that slammed the president’s economic record. Republicans, on the sidelines this week in Charlotte, continue to hammer the more unflattering parts of Obama’s term – unemployment still above 8 percent, a succession of trillion-dollar deficits and the national debt surpassing $16 trillion on Tuesday, just as the Democrats’ convention began.
"The past four years, Barack Obama hasn't offered any serious solutions to get our spending under control and instead he has run four straight years of trillion dollar deficits,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said Tuesday. “President Obama's budget got zero votes in Congress and we can only expect more of the same inaction in a second term.”
The budget deficit and debt didn’t get much attention on stage in Charlotte on Tuesday. The economy, though, did.
Michelle Obama credited her husband with bringing the “economy from the brink of collapse to creating jobs again” as she appealed on behalf of her husband for more time.
She also described their humble beginnings as a couple, in the days before they moved to Washington, calling it a "story of hope" and casting the president as a man still looking out for the little guy, wanting to give them the chances he had.
Obama said their life before moving to Washington was filled with “simple joys.”
She said Barack Obama used to pick “me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by in a hole in the passenger side door.
“He was the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he’d found in a dumpster, and whose only pair of decent shoes was a half size too small,” she said.
Obama said the two of them were “raised by families who didn’t have much in the way of money or material possessions but who had given us something far more valuable – their unconditional love, their unflinching sacrifice, and the chance to go places they had never imagined for themselves.”
She later said: “So in the end, for Barack, these issues aren’t political – they’re personal. Because Barack knows what it means when a family struggles. He knows what it means to want something more for your kids and grandkids.”
Obama said that since moving to the White House, the challenges have “tested” but not changed her husband.
Other speakers, but not Michelle Obama, took direct shots at Romney on Tuesday, casting him as an out-of-touch wealthy politician.
The keynote speaker, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, mocked Romney for recently suggesting young Americans borrow money from their parents to start a business. “He just has no idea how good he’s had it,” Castro said.
Michelle Obama did not mention Romney’s name once in her speech. Still, there were subtle moments in which she appeared to contrast Obama’s story against that of an unnamed wealthy foil.
“For Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives,” she said.
Michelle Obama took to the convention podium to defend and promote her husband one week after Ann Romney did the same for her husband in Tampa. The audience, as it was for Mrs. Romney, was rapt during the first lady’s address, interrupting only to cheer “four more years.”
The first lady is not just the president’s better half, but also his more popular half. Gallup polling back in May showed Michelle Obama’s approval rating at 66 percent, effectively unchanged since President Obama was inaugurated. The president’s approval rating, meanwhile, has fallen below 50 percent.
Members of the audience Tuesday praised the first lady’s address, as thousands of supporters began to stream out of the Time Warner Cable Arena.
“Very powerful,” Natalie Cole of Los Angeles said. “The speech was the essence of what Barack Obama’s presidency has been about. It was chilling. It went back to what we as parents or grandparents have done for our children to make a better life.”
Michelle Obama, who during the 2008 campaign occasionally stirred controversy with her on-the-stump remarks, has since moving to the White House taken on a less-political role. She has championed the cause of fighting childhood obesity, with her “Let’s Move” campaign and promotion of the fresh White House vegetable garden. That initiative was front-and-center during the video on the first lady which aired before she spoke.
The speech capped the first official day of the Democratic National Convention during which a cascade of Democratic officials defended the president’s record – at a time when Republicans claim Obama has little to run on.
Pre-recorded videos and speeches praised Obama for passing the health care law, overseeing the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, ending “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and giving the order to target Usama bin Laden.
The convention’s second day on Wednesday will feature Bill Clinton, followed by Vice President Biden and Obama on Thursday.