Michelle Obama’s ‘pitch-perfect’ speech gives media the freedom to gush

July 27, 2016
Photo: Michelle Obama speaks at the Democratic National Convention on Monday

Donald Trump has relied on an unusually nasty rhetorical style to steamroll opponents and even some potential allies this election season. He assailed war hero and fellow Republican John McCain, mocked Republican candidate Ted Cruz’s wife, made fun of disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, and regularly calls Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary” on Twitter.

Despite Trump’s mudslinging style, one person remains untouched by Trump and his surrogates: First Lady Michelle Obama.

From the confines of Twitter, Trump heckled most of the speakers at the DNC on Monday evening, lamenting Bernie Sanders’s surrender and endorsement of Hillary Clinton, and criticizing Elizabeth Warren while referring to her as “Pocahontas.” But he had nothing to say on Twitter about Obama’s widely praised speech, which celebrated America’s greatness and called for a leader (Hillary Clinton) who can be a role model for the next generation.

If there were such a thing as a bipartisan consensus–among candidates, pundits, and journalists–it would be that Obama’s performance was one of the best of the political conventions thus far. Even Trump agreed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter: “I thought her delivery was excellent….I thought she did a very good job. I liked her speech.” Trump called Obama’s speech the only highlight of Monday night at the DNC. The Washington Post speculated that Trump might actually admire the first lady.

The lack of criticism from Trump, and praise for Michelle Obama from other Republicans, may have empowered the media to broadly praise a convention speech in a fashion that’s rare in such a divisive political environment. Absent was the usual parsing of style and substance faced by most convention speakers. It’s worth noting Obama’s speech had an above-the-fray quality, avoiding heavy political subjects or Democratic ideology, opting for an optimistic tone that contrasted with the implications behind Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. There’s also a tradition of deference to First Ladies by the press and political operatives, though Hillary Clinton probably would argue she wasn’t extended the same courtesy during her husband’s eight years in office.

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Obama’s speech also was credited with calming some of the divide between Clinton and Sanders supporters. Here are some examples of media reactions to the speech:  

Fox News analyst Howard Kurtz:

First, though, Michelle Obama gave a lovely speech that caused the pundits to swoon. I didn’t find it that warm toward Hillary, who had that tough primary against her husband eight years ago, but I seem to be in the minority. The first lady did connect her family’s groundbreaking journey to the former first lady’s potential to make history if she beats Donald Trump.

CNN anchor Christine Romans:

The day began with a sense that it might be dominated or even overshadowed by those disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporters. Oh, no. But it ended with a stirring speech by Michelle Obama, a speech that some are placing in the convention halls of fame.

CBS News’s Reena Flores:

Unlike many of those with speaking roles at either the Republican or the Democratic convention, Obama offered a positive, uplifting vision of America. While she acknowledged obstacles ahead, she celebrated how far the country has come, unlike Trump, whose slogan suggests that greatness has come and gone.

NBC culture reporter Adam Howard:

First Lady Michelle Obama’s emotional and expertly delivered address at the Democratic National Convention on Monday is receiving near-universal praise, and it also may have more effectively made the case for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy than the presumptive nominee has herself to date

The Atlantic senior editor Yoni Appelbaum:

Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.

Michelle Obama, speaking hours and countless disruptions later, seemed to draw a more positive response, eliciting applause during her lines on Clinton. The audience remained visibly divided during her remarks, however, with one man being shushed for saying, “We love you, Michelle.”

Associated Press TV writer David Bauder:

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said first lady Michelle Obama’s speech was by far the best of the night. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos called it “polished, passionate and personal.” NBC’s Brokaw and Fox News’ Juan Williams used the same phrase. “It was about as pitch-perfect an endorsement as you can get,” Brokaw said. Williams said, “The framing of the speech in terms of her children was so pitch-perfect.”

Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson provided a lonely exception to the broad praise for Obama’s speech:

I know we’re required by law to pretend it was great and uplifting. It was a nasty, partisan speech posing as a speech about family. And there’s a kind of moral blackmail involved when she speaks. She’s the president’s wife. She’s a mother of two attractive daughters. Seems like a good mother. So you’re not really allowed to tell the truth, which is she’s a nasty, bitter partisan. And that’s what she is.

Obama’s wild popularity also may account for the positive response. Her overall approval ratings stand at 66 percent–93 percent among Democrats, 61 percent among Independents, and 43 percent among Republicans–according to a 2014 Gallup poll. Additionally, she was ranked the most favorable Democratic party figure in a 2016 Gallup poll conducted roughly two weeks prior to the convention.

Obama is one of the most popular first ladies in recent times. She ranks third of the last eight first ladies, just behind Barbara Bush (77 percent) and Laura Bush (73 percent).

Carlett Spike is a freelance writer and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike.