Friday, September 07, 2012

Michelle Obama's DNC Speech

(Originally published at

If you're looking to understand the rhetoric of Ann Romney and Michelle Obama, here's how it works:

Ann is playing a common housewife. She constantly referred to "Mitt" as the "boy I met at a dance" at her RNC speech. Her function is to humanize "Mitt," to try to get voters to think of him as a human being instead of a creepy, fake-smiling suit straight out of a 1980s sci-fi thriller. She's not much of a speaker, but she's a hell of a convincing soccer mom, showing us how the Romneys are just like the family across the street (not kragillionares with bizarre nightly rituals and secret handshakes). Also, it's hard not to look good in comparison to "Mitt."

Michelle, on the other hand, is the awesome candidate we ought to be able to vote for, but that's water under the bridge. Listen to her DNC speech and you'll hear a couple things. First, she also brings up cute anecdotes from her marriage, which--since the Obamas are eminently relatable and the Romneys are terrifying cyborgs--easily beat Ann's in terms of homespun charm and lack of creep. Second, she stutters constantly, in the vein of Shia LeBeouf or that Twilight girl, like this: "...that is what has made my story and Barack's story, a-a-and so many other American stories possible..." Far more effectively than Ann Romney's "When we were in school together" stories, this subtle vocal effect forces the audience, at a gut level, to relate to Michelle. People who stutter (a little bit, in the right places) sound like people; it's the opposite of that mechanical, droning quality you get when an untalented speaker reads something aloud. Hearing Michelle's speech is like listening to an Oscar-winning performance. Her voice, toward the end, has the quality of tears-held-back. Your correspondent can report that he was personally ready to leap up and cheer if she perchance shouted "FREEDOM!!!" or "LONG LIVE SCOTLAND!!!" Her oratory is unmatched, packed with inspirational zingers like, "Being president doesn't change who you are. No, it reveals who you are."

Rhetorically speaking, though, the smartest element of her speech was her deployment of tales of middle-class poverty with her husband. She tells lots of stories about e.g. how her father was a pump operator, how Barack was raised by a single-mother, how their student debt weighed them down for years, how he had this coffee table he found in a dumpster and how he'd pick her up in a car with rusted holes in the door. This is rhetorically brilliant, because it reframes the stagnated economy from "Barack's failure" to "Barack feels your pain." Hammering away at slow economic growth is the bassline of the Romney campaign, and Michelle's speech shows how dangerous this strategy is: as long as the Obamas can keep drawing attention to how ludicrously privileged the Romneys are, the bad economy might provide more ground for empathy with the President than frustration toward him.

Supposedly the race to inhabit the White House is currently neck-and-neckish, but it's difficult to believe that, in what is essentially the world's biggest popularity contest, someone as eminently unlikable as Willard Mitchell Romney stands a chance against either of the Obamas. Creepy wealth, creepy religion, and creepy slicked hair do not fare well against the most charismatic American couple since Tom Cruise and his reflection.

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