One of Hillary Clinton’s chief advantages in the presidential race is her murderers’ row of surrogates, with some of the best orators in modern American politics fanning out across the country to drum up support on her behalf: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden. Yet Clinton’s best advocate isn’t one of these experienced politicians. It’s the first lady, Michelle Obama, who has delivered the two most powerful speeches of the general election: the rousing pep talk at the Democratic National Convention and, perhaps even more potently, her excoriation of Donald Trump’s sexism during a speech in New Hampshire last Thursday.
Obama’s effectiveness is acknowledged on both sides. After New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton tweeted:
It seems Trump’s campaign fears this to be true. Hunter Walker of Yahoo News reports that the Trump team “believes that first lady Michelle Obama could be the most potent surrogate in Clinton’s corner.” Walker quotes an unnamed Trump staffer as saying, “She’s a much bigger threat than Hillary Clinton because of her charisma, her connection. I mean she kind of connects like Trump connects, right? She connects like [President] Obama connects. She has a huge connection.… It’s very tough to compete with that… That’s not Hillary. Hillary is a robot.”
In Saturday’s New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni argued that Michelle Obama’s eloquence could be the “final death blow” to Trump’s campaign. In her emergence as one of the most vigorous voices of the election, Obama is going against the grain of her character, which hitherto manifested itself by “keeping a studied distance from the ugliness of the political arena,” Bruni writes. Obama, unlike her husband or Hillary Clinton, has no taste for politics as a profession, but it’s precisely her discomfort with political game-playing that makes her a perfect foil for Trump. He’s an anti-politics politician himself, more a mouthpiece for white male rage than someone interested in the intricacies of Washington dealmaking. If Trump gives voice to those white men who feel constrained by political correctness, then Michelle is the voice of a black woman who knows viscerally the damage done by racism and sexism.
Clinton’s chief disadvantage in the presidential race is that she has to put up with Trump’s personal attacks. She cannot respond in kind, but rather must demonstrate that she has a calm and steady temperament. So she laughs off Trump’s sexist jibes about her stamina and health, and endures his attempts to rattle her with Bill Clinton’s past, most notably when he invited to the second debate several women who have made accusations of sexual misconduct against her husband. This parallels the way Barack Obama, as Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have argued, has been expected to bottle up personal anger at racism, including Trump’s birtherism.
As a non-political figure, Michelle Obama has much greater leeway to express anger and hurt than her husband or Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Michelle Obama is Clinton’s anger translator: She has license to speak out about all the frustration, and even pain, that Trump’s misogyny has caused Clinton and other women.
In her major speeches, Obama doesn’t ever name Trump. There are few possible reasons for this: She doesn’t consider him worthy of acknowledgement. She knows that not saying his name—the one word on which his audacious, gaudy brand relies—must get under his skin. She considers “Trump” to be a four-letter word.
Whatever the reason, Obama makes clear her genuine, heartfelt loathing of the man whose name she dare not speak. The most forceful theme of her New Hampshire speech was about the widespread pain caused by Trump’s infamous “grab them by the pussy” remark to Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush in 2005. Almost trembling in anger as she spoke, Obama said the fact that a candidate for president once “bragged about sexually assaulting women ... has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.”
So many have worked for so many years to end this kind of violence and abuse and disrespect. But here we are in 2016 and we’re hearing these exact same things on the campaign trail. We are drowning in it. And all of us are doing what women have always done. We’re trying to keep our heads above water—just trying to get through it. Trying to pretend like this doesn’t really bother us. Maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak. Maybe we’re afraid to be that vulnerable. Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet because we’ve seen that people often won’t take our word over his.
These words carry with them the authority of experience, and are far more commanding than the more measured and abstract language Hillary Clinton has used to attack Trump’s sexism. Obama can speak about Trump’s sexism as a personal affront to her as a woman; Clinton can’t. During the second presidential debate, Clinton was quick to connect Trump’s sexism with how “he has also targeted immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, POWs, Muslims, and so many others.” Perhaps focusing on bigotry as a whole has a political advantage for a female presidential candidate, so she doesn’t seem to be representing just one specific group or be driven by personal motives. But it also has the damaging effect of obscuring the truth that Obama is allowed to say: When Trump celebrates gross and even criminal mistreatment of women, many women experience that as a personal hurt.
Obama has proven herself to be one of the most gifted orators in America, an equal to her supremely talented husband, and her speech last week even had some calling for her to run for office. That’s unlikely; Obama has long made clear that she’s not interested. And there’s a strong case to be made that she shouldn’t. Entering politics, after all, would likely rob Obama of her greatest political power: to give voice to the emotions that the politicians she holds dear can’t voice themselves.
But her speeches on behalf of Clinton do give us a foretaste of what Obama could become after she leaves the White House. Liberated from the constraints of being first lady, which she reportedly feels has “trapped” her, Obama could, like Eleanor Roosevelt before her, become one of the most outspoken former first ladies ever. After leaving the the White House, Roosevelt didn’t hold any office but became a vocal champion of the left wing of the Democratic Party, using newspaper columns and speeches to push it in a more progressive direction on Civil Rights, trade unionism, and other issues. The Michelle Obama we saw at the Democratic National Convention and in New Hampshire could be a harbinger of the role she’s ready to assume. To borrow a phrase from Donald Trump, she can now fight for America the way she wants to.