Critics and supporters alike gave First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention high praise this week. Her message was a sweeping and positive retort to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan— her own “Morning in America” to his “Make America Great Again.”
But her suddenly sunny assessment of the country surprised some who have heard her say, perhaps not in so many words, that we should make America great again, and the vehicle for doing so should be her husband, President Barack Obama. A review of her past statements makes it all the more remarkable she should be able to outflank the GOP ticket on patriotic optimism.
1. ‘For the First Time in My Adult Life’
This is perhaps the most infamous of Obama’s pronouncements about the country’s deficiencies. She delivered the line in a Wisconsin stump speech, and it served to cement a narrative of the aspiring first lady as somewhat sour on her country. Republicans and conservatives were happy to use the moment against the Obama campaign. The statement was not a slip-up. She said it in two stump speeches in Wisconsin, in Madison and Milwaukee.
“People in this country are ready for change and hungry for a different kind of politics and … for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.”
A charitable way to read her uncharitable assessment of America is to say some of it no doubt comes from an experience as a young black woman that revealed a gap between the American dream and the American reality.
But that doesn’t explain some of Obama’s other statements.
2. ‘Downright Mean’ and Progressively ‘Worse’
In a 2008 New Yorker profile of Michelle Obama, Lauren Collins followed her around as she campaigned for her husband, taking in her personality quirks and speeches daily. At the time, Barack Obama was running against Hillary Clinton, which meant running against the Clinton legacy. Back then, America wasn’t great yet, according to Michelle, and hadn’t been for quite some time.
Indeed, despite undeniable advancements for all Americans, particularly minorities, during the twentieth century, Michelle Obama insisted on the trail that things had actually gotten worse. Collins summed it up:
Obama begins with a broad assessment of life in America in 2008, and life is not good: we’re a divided country, we’re a country that is ‘just downright mean,’ we are ‘guided by fear,’ we’re a nation of cynics, sloths, and complacents. ‘We have become a nation of struggling folks who are barely making it every day,’ she said, as heads bobbed in the pews. ‘Folks are just jammed up, and it’s gotten worse over my lifetime. And, doggone it, I’m young. Forty-four!’
From these bleak generalities, Obama moves into specific complaints. Used to be, she will say, that you could count on a decent education in the neighborhood. But now there are all these charter schools and magnet schools that you have to ‘finagle’ to get into. (Obama herself attended a magnet school, but never mind.) Health care is out of reach (‘Let me tell you, don’t get sick in America’), pensions are disappearing, college is too expensive, and even if you can figure out a way to go to college you won’t be able to recoup the cost of the degree in many of the professions for which you needed it in the first place. ‘You’re looking at a young couple that’s just a few years out of debt,’ Obama said. ‘See, because, we went to those good schools, and we didn’t have trust funds. I’m still waiting for Barack’s trust fund. Especially after I heard that Dick Cheney was s’posed to be a relative or something. Give us something here!’
It sure does sound like she’d like to make America great again. These are not slip-ups. This is the central message of her 2008 trail outings: “The life that I’m talking about that most people are living has gotten progressively worse since I was a little girl. . . . So if you want to pretend like there was some point over the last couple of decades when your lives were easy, I want to meet you!”
3. Michelle’s Mythical ‘Tough Luck’ America
On the trail in 2012, Michelle eschewed some of the more heavy-handed language of her fellow Democrats about the nightmarish dystopia Mitt Romney was bound to impose on this country. But she did say America, despite its incredible capacity for private charity and large, even duplicative, social welfare programs, is a country that tells those who struggle to simply make it on their own.
“And we all know that in this America, the America we’re working for, that when one of us stumbles — because all of us have the potential of stumbling — when one of us falls on hard times, we don’t turn our backs and tell them, ‘Tough luck, you’re on your own.’ No, instead, we extend a helping hand until they can get back on their feet again. That’s the America we’re working for.”
4. Same Old Segregation
But those are old examples, you say. Well, let’s look at a commencement speech from 2014. If there was ever a place for a First Lady to be anodyne and positive about the promise of America, this is it. Nope:
You see, many districts in this country have actually pulled back on efforts to integrate their schools and many communities have become less diverse as folks have moved from cities to suburbs.
So today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech. As a result, many young people in America are going to school largely with kids who look just like them.
And too often, those schools aren’t equal, especially ones attended by students of color which too often lag behind, with crumbling classrooms and less experienced teachers.
And even in schools that seem integrated according to the numbers, when you look a little closer, you see students from different backgrounds sitting at separate lunch tables, or tracked into different classes, or separated into different clubs or activities.
So while students attend school in the same building, they never really reach beyond their own circles, and that probably happens here in Topeka too sometimes…
So graduates, the truth is that Brown vs. Board of Education isn’t just about our history, it’s about our future. Because while that case was handed down 60 years ago, Brown is still being decided every single day — not just in our courts and schools, but in how we live our lives.
In this version of American history, a landmark legal case that corrected decades of wrongs, one of our great national redemption stories, means almost nothing because America’s schools are still “as segregated as they were” and “aren’t equal.”
What changed? Obama is president and Trump is the nominee.