CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The first lady took the stage Tuesday night to remind Americans what they liked about Barack Obama four years ago. In doing so, she also reminded Americans of important traits that people share across the country.
Poised and graceful as ever on the first night of the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama recalled getting to know her husband and learning that he also came from a family that sacrificed and struggled to provide greater opportunities for the next generation. Her own father was a city pump operator who rarely missed a day's work despite suffering from multiple sclerosis. He considered working and paying bills to be part of what it meant to be a man. Barack Obama was raised by a struggling single mom, and later by his grandparents.
"You see, Barack and I were both raised by families who didn't have much in the way of money or material possessions but who had given us something far more valuable -- their unconditional love, their unflinching sacrifice, and the chance to go places they had never imagined for themselves," the first lady told the crowd. It was a reminder that the Obamas have far more in common with most American families than their Republican opponents.
When Democrats talk about fairness or helping young, struggling, or low-income families to improve their circumstances, they are often portrayed by opponents as trying to inflame strife between income groups. It's not true, and Michelle Obama acknowledged it squarely in her speech.
"Like so many American families, our families weren't asking for much, " she said. "They didn't begrudge anyone else's success or care that others had much more than they did. In fact, they admired it. They simply believed in that fundamental American promise that, even if you don't start out with much, if you work hard and do what you're supposed to do, then you should be able to build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids and grandkids."
While Mrs. Obama never named an opponent, she nevertheless soundly differentiated her family's values from those of many prominent Republican opponents and critics.
"We learned about dignity and decency -- that how hard you work matters more than how much you make...that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself. We learned about honesty and integrity -- that the truth matters ... that you don't take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules...and success doesn't count unless you earn it fair and square," she said.
"We learned about gratitude and humility -- that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean ... and we were taught to value everyone's contribution and treat everyone with respect."
President Obama's specific accomplishments and values are well known: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, cutting taxes for working families and small businesses, helping to get the auto industry back to health, bringing the economy back from near collapse, making sure everyone can afford to get medical care, leaving women's health and pregnancy decisions to themselves, making sure young people can go to college and being able to marry the one you love.
Michelle Obama succeeded in reminding the nation that Barack Obama is still the same guy they loved and elected four years ago. But in talking about her husband, she also set a good example for everyone else, and highlighted what is so strong and constructive about the election process:
"I love that for Barack, there is no such thing as 'us' and 'them' -- he doesn't care whether you're a Democrat, a Republican, or none of the above ... he knows that we all love our country ... "