By nearly all accounts — even grudging Republicans — Michelle Obama's speech last night was a transcendent, nuanced stroke of political genuis. The First Lady offered an empassioned defense of her husband, for whom, let's face it, the honeymoon period is over. She did it by weaving a stirring recap not just of harmonious domesticity but all-American upward mobility. And she did it all while throwing some shade, ever-so-delicately, to Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann.
If the young Romneys had gone from a folding ironing board to a Cadillac elevator, Michelle reminded us that just a few years ago, Barack was still picking her up in a rusted-out car for date night and prizing a garbage-picked coffee table. She told a story not just of upward mobility but of how that mobility was possible — because of student loans and grants, because of good teachers and loyal janitors, because of a world where a pump operator at the city water plant could support an entire family. She invoked the Lilly Ledbetter act with the "glass ceiling" Barack's grandmother hit working as a secretary at a community bank, then actually shouted out the law by name. She gave props to Obamacare, the stimulus, gay marriage, and her husband's belief in a woman's right to choose. She told us pointedly that "how hard you work matters more than how much you make…that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself," skewering the spate of RNC speakers who obsessively praised businesspeople like Mitt Romney.
She even gave a shoutout to that classic feminist refrain when she said that "in the end, for Barack, these issues aren't political — they're personal."
Yet that last crescendo, the one that connected her family's story with the struggles of "farmers and blacksmiths," immigrants and women seeking the vote and Martin Luther King Jr. and gay people fighting for civil rights, ended on an anticlimactic note that echoed just a little bit of Ann Romney's mommy martyrdom. Michelle was saying "all of this tonight not just as first lady, and not just as a wife…at the end of the day, my most important title is still 'mom in chief.'"
At that moment, my Twitter feed (which is filled with all kinds of bad-ass women) exploded with virtual winces, the same ones that had risen during a pre-speech video about Michelle that had nary a mention of her career as a Harvard-educated lawyer, and during which Barack had characterized himself as "second fiddle" in their household: Why does motherhood always have to be held up above all?
I thought just for a second that Michelle's "most important title" was going to be "an American"—an identity that's been literally questioned in the case of her husband, and ideologically questioned ever since Michelle admitted she was "really proud of my country" for the first time in her adult lifetime. But a moment later, "mom-in-chief" made more sense. Michelle Obama has been tasked with not only softening her husband, but also herself. She's been fighting the "angry black woman" refrain (and the memory of ballbusting First Lady Clinton) from rightwingers since before her husband was elected.
Still, the most poignant contrast between her and Ann Romney is that pre-White House, Michelle balanced a formidable career with motherhood. She did the same thing that 66 percent of mothers with children under 17 do every day. Why not relate to women as a working mom, rather than simply a mom? Perhaps it's because ideas like "affordable childcare" or "maternity leave" haven't so much as been whispered during her husband's administration, and Michelle isn't one to serve up Ann Romney's sense of cheerful resignation. Or because it's an election year, and we can't risk a First Lady revamp. But I'm still hoping that once the stakes aren't so high, Michelle can expand her identity — as an American, as a professional, and as a mom-in-chief.