Michelle Obama is a powerful voice to have in your corner. She is a singular presence who is — at the same time — Everywoman. But if you get on her bad side, if you demonstrate with word and deed that you disrespect the people and things she cares about, watch out.
In Manchester, New Hampshire, on Thursday, a campaign appearance for Hillary Clinton became much more. But I’m sure Clinton didn’t mind. The first lady, with raw and visible emotion, put into words what many have been feeling since a cascade of revelations, video tapes and recorded conversations filled in any possible blanks on the character of Donald Trump, on his treatment of — and judgments about — women.
And she did it, as is her usual practice, without uttering the words “Donald” or “Trump.” He may be the reality TV star, but it was Michelle Obama who got real. She mesmerized the crowd with a speech that seemed spontaneous in delivery and cut to the heart of the matter.
“The fact is that, in this election, we have a candidate for president of the United States who over the course of his lifetime, and the course of this campaign, has said things about women that are so shocking, so demeaning that I simply will not repeat anything here today,” she said.
“And last week, we saw this candidate actually bragging about sexually assaulting women. I can't believe that I'm saying that a candidate for president of the United States has bragged about sexually assaulting women. And I have to tell you that I can't stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn't have predicted. …
“It would be dishonest and disingenuous to me to just move on to the next thing like this was all just a bad dream. … This is not something that we can sweep under the rug as just another disturbing footnote in a sad election season because this was not just a lewd conversation. This wasn't just locker room banter. This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior. … And to make matters worse, it now seems very clear that this isn’t an isolated incident. It’s one of countless examples of how he has treated women his whole life.”
Obama made it personal, and enveloped those in the crowd, many of whom brought their children, as she recalled all “the shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman. It is cruel. It's frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts.”
Michelle Obama is practically the only Democrat who has not faced the wrath of Donald Trump or his minions, perhaps because even they recognize the folly of going down that low road. She is invulnerable, riding sky-high in popularity polls.
The only time Trump has mentioned her name is to unearth the years-ago Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton rivalry. And he only threw the name Michelle Obama back at Clinton in the second presidential debate when Clinton repeated the first lady’s Democratic National Convention mantra heard round the world: “When they go low, we go high.”
But that hands-off attitude hasn’t stopped Michelle Obama’s jabs at the Republican nominee, whether with humor — such as her taps on the microphone in a Charlotte, North Carolina, speech, mocking Trump’s complaints of technical difficulties at debate No. 1 — or with dead-on seriousness, in withering critiques of his temperament and fitness for office.
Michelle Obama, sparingly and strategically called on to be a political surrogate, has been the president’s secret weapon, the warm counterpoint to his sometimes professorial manner. She has turned out to be Hillary Clinton’s, as well. Michelle Obama is not trailing any baggage — no attacks have really stuck. She carries the Princeton and Harvard degrees lightly, escaping the “elitist” tag maybe because the hard-working family struggles growing up on South Side of Chicago are always close by, and people sense it.
This strong African-American woman has overcome societal stereotypes, race and gender prejudice, and all the obstacles placed in her way.
She has also risen above attacks on her beauty, patriotism and intellect led by some Republicans, while others — who now seem so very shocked at the thought of Trump’s words when they imagine their own (mostly white) wives and daughters — remained silent.
They need to hang their heads alongside their disgraced nominee, and ruefully remember the women, particularly African-American women, who twice put Michelle’s husband in the White House.
Clinton does not have to bludgeon Trump’s ever-unfolding scandals when she has Michelle Obama making the case, as she did in New Hampshire, that Clinton is “the right person for the job because we’ve seen her character and commitment, not just in this campaign, but over the course of her entire life.”
All Clinton has to do is get out of the way, and be very glad that the current first lady didn’t decide to run — in 2016, anyway.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.