This year the Democratic National Convention, rather than take place in a raucous stadium with balloons, podiums, and people in shoulder pads doing the Macarena, more resembles the Zoom meetings and Skype dates we’ve become accustomed to over the past six months. It’s an off-putting format, one that many speakers struggled with. Some rose to the occasion, though — none as much as former First Lady Michelle Obama, who delivered a heartfelt, searing speech, offering a harsh condemnation of the moral failings of the Trump administration and emphasizing the urgency of voting him out.
“If you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this: If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can, and they will if we don’t make a change in this election,” she said. “If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”
During her 18-minute pre-taped keynote speech on the convention’s opening night, Obama addressed Trump’s malevolent incompetency, the COVID-19 pandemic, the deep importance of voting rights, and, of course, why you should vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris come November.
Here are some of the highlights from Obama’s DNC address.
“It is what it is”
The moment of Obama’s speech that got the biggest reaction of the night was undoubtedly this one, where she said Trump’s name for the first and only time:
Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.”
The phrase “it is what it is” is the same one Trump used to describe the COVID-19 death toll in the United States earlier this month, a degree of misery and death his administration is in no small part responsible for.
Throughout the rest of the address, she had emphasized that Trump is unfit to be in office without naming him directly. “I am one of a handful of people living today who have seen firsthand the immense weight and awesome power of the presidency,” she said at the beginning of her speech, in a clear rebuke of our current president. “And let me once again tell you this: The job is hard. It requires clearheaded judgment, a mastery of complex and competing issues, a devotion to facts and history, a moral compass, and an ability to listen — and an abiding belief that each of the 330,000,000 lives in this country has meaning and worth.”
Obama also reworked her famous “when they go low, we go high” line, first spoken at the 2016 DNC, into a meditation on taking action against “cruelty” and “hatred” rather than passively assuming the high road.
“Going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else. But let’s be clear: Going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountaintop. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation, under God, and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences.”
On Black Lives Matter
Obama directly referenced the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and so many others, harshly criticizing Trump’s reaction to the ongoing nationwide uprising against racist police violence:
Here at home, as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and a never-ending list of innocent people of color continue to be murdered, stating the simple fact that a Black life matters is still met with derision from the nation’s highest office.
Because whenever we look to this White House for some leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness, what we get instead is chaos, division, and a total and utter lack of empathy.
She went on to question what kind of example we are setting for American children, who are growing up in a country that’s abandoned its values. “Right now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another,” she said. “They see our leaders labeling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening torch-bearing white supremacists.”
On voter suppression tactics
In recent weeks Trump has proposed postponing the election, hinted he wouldn’t leave the White House even if he lost the election, and threatened to defund the USPS so voters can’t mail in ballots. This is to say nothing of the voter disenfranchisement strategies Republicans have been honing for decades that includes gerrymandering, the myth of mass voter fraud, and preventing convicted felons from voting in certain states.
“Right now, folks who know they cannot win fair and square at the ballot box are doing everything they can to stop us from voting. They’re closing down polling places in minority neighborhoods. They’re purging voter rolls. They’re sending people out to intimidate voters, and they’re lying about the security of our ballots.”
Obama was wise to tout Biden as a sort of protean mass of moral fiber. Mature, but with room to grow, imperfect, but no less perfect than anyone else.
“Joe is not perfect, and he’d be the first to tell you that. But there is no perfect candidate, no perfect president. And his ability to learn and grow—we find in that the kind of humility and maturity that so many of us yearn for right now.”