Michelle Obama's speech and US expectations of a first lady

She reintroduced herself to the American people Monday, with a focus on family and public service.

Melanie Stetson Freeman – Staff
Michelle Obama spoke to Democratic delegates on opening night of the party's national convention in Denver.

Denver – The biggest applause line in Michelle Obama's prime-time speech on Day 1 of the Democratic National Convention was a reference to her husband's former chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"People like Hillary Clinton, who put those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, so that our daughters and sons can dream a little bigger and aim a little higher," she said in reference to the votes cast for Senator Clinton during the primary season – as the delegates at the Pepsi Center in Denver roared approval.

It's a sign that first ladies, even would-be first ladies, swim in deep political waters. Not until Senator Clinton takes the podium on Night 2 of the convention will issues of party unity be set to rest ... perhaps. Still, Michelle is the first Obama to meet it head on in a high-stakes, prime-time speech.

It's unlikely that many Americans decide who they want for president on the basis of their feelings regarding a candidate's spouse. But impressions form, and last night prospective voters had an opportunity to judge what kind of a first lady they think Michelle Obama would be – and to think about whether she fits into their idea of what someone in that role should be.

Thus, the most important line of the evening for Michelle Obama came a few beats later, as she spoke about "the great American story," that is, that men and women are "determined to mold our future into the shape of our ideals."

"All of us driven by the simple belief that the world as it is just won’t do. That we have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be. That is the thread that runs through my journey and Barack's journey and so many other improbable journeys that have brought us here tonight, where the current of history meets this new tide of hope.”

The Teleprompter read: PAUSE. Then, she said it: "That is why I love this country."

It was something of a course correction, meant to lay to rest something she had said back in February, when she told an audience in Wisconsin that "for the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud of my country." For some, it raised this question: Was Michelle Obama – and, by association, her husband – unpatriotic?

The whole flap was reminiscent of one that surrounded Hillary Clinton back when she was a would-be first lady on the campaign trail. Her comment about not sitting home and baking cookies dogged her into the election and beyond: Was she disparaging noncareer women who did quietly raise families and, yes, bake cookies?

By way of explanation about how love of country has shaped her decisions, Obama said: "In my own life, in my own small way, I've tried to give back to this country that has given me so much. That's why I left a job at a law firm for a career in public service, working to empower young people to volunteer in their communities.

"Because I believe that each of us – no matter what our age or background or walk of life – each of us has something to contribute to the life of this nation. It's a belief Barack shares, a belief at the heart of his life's work," she added.

The office of first lady carries with it no job description, but the highest of expectations. In addition to validating the character of her husband, the modern first lady must also validate her own. At a time of mixed expectations for women in society, the path to wide acceptance is not always clear, especially for women with independent voices and careers.

Teresa Heinz Kerry, with an independent fortune and career, was too powerful a figure in the Kerry campaign in 2004, to the point of overshadowing the candidate, critics said at the time. Earlier, they'd said that Rosalind Carter had too much influence as a behind-the-scenes adviser, and that the Clintons, who promised voters they were getting "two for the price of one," ran a dual presidency. Even Nancy Reagan, who defined the adoring stage gaze of a presidential spouse, faced criticism in some circles for overmanaging her husband's staff and official calendar.

Over months of campaigning, Michelle Obama has likewise picked up some criticism: Is she too cold, calculating, unempathetic? Did that fist bump with her husband on the campaign trail signal something sinister?

In Denver Monday night, she reintroduced herself and her family to the American people. "I come here as a wife who loves my husband and believes he will be an extraordinary president. I come here as a mom whose girls are the heart of my heart and the center of my world," she said. "They're the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about when I go to bed at night. Their future and all our children's future is my stake in this election."

Her family story and her husband's family story are American stories, she said.

"Michelle is not the woman behind her man; she's the woman beside her man, and I think she wants to world to know that," said Mabel Edwards, a convention delegate from New York City who says she has 15 granddaughters.

"Times have changed. I tell my granddaughters that, in my day, I could go out in the rain and not get wet because my husband hadn't told me it was raining," she said. But criticism of first ladies hasn't always kept up with the times, she adds. "In order to get her husband, [political opponents are] using her," she adds.

Delegate Nathalie Henderson, a volunteer from Atlanta who watched the speech from the convention floor, said of Obama: "She's inspirational. [Her critics] don't exactly understand where she's coming from."

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