I can’t properly assess Michelle Obama’s convention speech, which closed the festivities last night, without first bringing up Drew Westen.
A psychology professor and author of a recent book entitled The Political Brain, Westen sometimes advises Democrats about the importance of connecting emotionally with voters. (The fact that Democrats even need to be advised about this is further proof of why the Republicans usually win presidential elections.) Anyway, Westen recently suggested in article that Barack Obama badly needs to demonstrate how his own personal story connects with the lives and concerns of the people he aspires to lead. As Westen put it, Obama needs “a coherent, consistent narrative of who he is that weaves together the themes of his campaign with his life history.”
Michelle Obama sought last night to address that need. Her aim was to strip away the “foreign” “exotic” image that has politically impeded her husband, and replace it with the image of a family man who has lived the American dream and wants others to live it as well. The speech was Westen 101 (although, of course, Westen isn’t the only expert who has been offering unsolicited advice). It was also de rigeur for our touchy-feely era, since it now seems that a political spouse is expected to validate the character of the candidate; presumably, Michelle’s efforts are more sincere than those of Elizabeth Edwards.
More importantly, it was also a speech that, via ads and soundbites and stump rhetoric, both Obamas will need to replicate on a daily basis between now and November (“we’re just like you!”), if he is to have any hope of winning over the wary.
Michelle, of course, was also doing some repair work on her own image, a necessary task given the fact that conservatives have been tarring her as insufficiently patriotic and “angry” (which is barely veiled code for “angry black”), while spreading lies about how she supposedly had given a speech referring to Caucasian citizens as “whitey” (there is no such evidence). One might think that there is something quintissentially American about the true story of an inner-city girl, the daughter of a water filtration plant worker stricken with multiple sclerosis, who nevertheless grew up to attend Princeton and Harvard and work in public service and raise two daughters of her own…but, clearly, such a story line could not be allowed to stand.
She sought to reclaim the story line last night. Overall, I counted 12 references to “America” and “Americans,” with lots of paens to people (like her dad, like her husband, like millions of Americans…linkage, Westen-style) who work hard to chase the American dream and aspire to make the nation better. “Isn’t that the great American story?” she asked. “…That is why I love this country…I’ve tried to give back to this country that has given me so much.”
For instance, as part of her mission to link her own story to the stories of millions, she mentioned how her father, burdened by MS, needed an extra hour in the morning just to dress himself for work, then quickly segued into a tribute to the work ethic of others – namely, the folks who give their kids “a good night kiss” before heading out to work “the night shift.” I couldn’t help but notice her targeting of blue-collar workers. That made sense, given her husband’s weakness with those voters.
Then came a few humanizing brushstrokes for the other dad, Barack; notably, it was the anecdote about how he drove his newborn daughter home from the hospital “inching along at snail’s base” with the baby in the back seat. Michelle might have gone a bit overboard, by making it sound as if Barack, while slowly motoring, was also thinking Big Thoughts about making a better life for his daughter and all daughters everywhere…but the basic anecdote may have hit home for many viewers. Lots of new fathers (and I speak from personal experience) have driven exactly that way.
Then came the Obama daughters, waving to their dad on the big screen, with dad calling out, “Look after mommy, and I’ll see you guys on Thursday, all right?” Sounding like any traveling salesman calling home from the road. “Love you, daddy!” they replied, sounding unforeign and unexotic.
Hammy? Maybe. Necessary? Probably, considering the Obama camp’s political needs of the moment.
Naturally I wouldn’t be shocked to receive a new viral email claiming that “Love you, daddy!” was actually code for a future terrorist attack, but rational souls would probably agree that Michelle’s humanization project has repaired at least some of the damage. For now, anyway.