Grinnell, Iowa - I'm here at the Mayflower senior center to see Michelle Obama, as part of a few posts I'll do on the spousal effect this cycle. Michelle seems to be the kind of speaker that attracts tons of people -- aren't old ladies supposed to be Hillary voters? Well, they're here en masse -- but no journalists. (A lot of pols have the opposite problem.) Maureen Dowd is here, and a C-SPAN guy, but other than that, no scribes. I guess the spouses that are getting the attention are either the ones that frequently overshadow their mates (Bill, Elizabeth Edwards), or the trainwrecks (Jeri Thompson).
It's too bad, because Michelle is awesome. She is just so incredibly regal -- unbelievably tall, in a bold striped black suit that only makes her seem taller, with pearls and a swept-back hairdo that almost looks 30s-style. ("She is just so TALL!" some ladies are overheard saying as they leave.) She looks like more of a star than her husband. That said, I'm struck that her argument, in an intimate stump speech she gives entirely from memory, was completely different from Obama's. The first half of her address was about growing up in a humble, "tiny" South Side apartment. "My brother and I are products of the ordinary public schools," she stresses. "There was nothing miraculous about my upbringing." This point in contrast to Barack, whose entire life story is some kind of miracle.
She uses the word "ordinary" nine times, by my count, in the speech; she doesn't drop the ubiquitous Obama keywords of "hope" until 20 minutes in, and "change" until 10 minutes after that. It's not radical change, an overhaul of "politics as usual," a huge infusion of new hope that people need, she says. Growing up, "my father didn't want much. People aren't asking for much." Just a "little bit of hope," as she puts it the first time she invokes Obama's signature keyword idea. Public schools a little bit better. Seniors who are a little bit healthier, and able to "give our kids a little extra candy now and then" for a few more years. It's not transformative; it's almost a conservative argument.
Perhaps this is why journalists aren't latching onto Michelle -- it's not as easy to square her argument for Obama with his own as it is to, say, match Elizabeth's gist with John's. That said, she's an incredibly effective speaker, great in her ability to make what could be humdrum points exciting. People seem wowed by her -- "If he wasn't running, I'd vote for her!" was one reaction. So maybe she's a good foil for Obama's soaring, transformative rhetoric.