Strong show from 'Mom-in-Chief'


First ladies don't hold debates. Instead, the wives of presidential candidates give competing convention speeches. Michelle Obama last night said she loved Barack Obama more now than she did four years ago because he hadn't changed since the days when his proudest possession was a coffee table he found in a Dumpster.

"We were so young, so in love and so in debt," she said.

Last week, Ann Romney had a similar description of early wedded bliss to Mitt Romney, reminiscing about their start in a basement apartment eating pasta and tuna fish dinners on an ironing board: "We were very young. Both still in college. There were many reasons to delay marriage, and you know? We just didn't care."

Michelle Obama's speech wasn't just a touching testimonial to her husband; it was a vivid, live-on-network-television reminder of how little the role of first lady has changed. At a time when powerful career women are showcased at each convention - former secretaries of state, senators, governors, activists - the role of the president's wife - or an aspiring president's wife - seems pretty much frozen in the template set by Jacqueline Kennedy and Pat Nixon.

It's hard to find two women farther apart in background, education and ideology than Michelle Obama and Ann Romney, yet their convention personas are remarkably similar. They are warm, caring and, most of all, irreproachable helpmates.

Like Ann Romney before her, Michelle Obama was tapped to draw a personal, approachable portrait of a husband who is sometimes seen as aloof and didactic. Both women spoke winningly, but Michelle Obama, who had addressed a political convention before, gave the strongest performance.

Naturally, there was no overt hostility between the two sides. Michelle Obama never uttered the word "Romney." Earlier, when Ryan Seacrest asked her to assess Ann Romney's speech, Michelle Obama said, "I didn't watch it." Yet last night she managed to draw a contrast between the two candidates, elliptically.

Michelle Obama said she loved that after law school, her husband turned down "high-paying jobs" to help people find work in poor communities. "Because for Barack," she said, "success isn't about how much money you make. It's about the difference you make in people's lives."

Ann Romney said she admired her husband's drive and business acumen. "And let's be honest," she told Republicans in Tampa, Florida. "If the last four years had been more successful, do we really think there would be this attack on Mitt Romney's success?"

Like all first ladies since Hillary Rodham Clinton was cast as the “Glamour Don't of East Wing etiquette”, Michelle Obama was careful not to say anything in her speech that critics could seize on as strident or unladylike. It's a lesson she learned during her husband's first campaign, when even a hand gesture could be misread. (A Fox News commentator famously said she greeted her husband with a "terrorist fist jab.")

She is now a pro. No one since Jacqueline Kennedy has worked the camera more astutely or more purposefully to help her husband - the best way is still to be seen as an exemplary first lady. And she looked the part, shimmering in a silky pink sheath, smiling even more than usual as she spoke of serious things.

In her speech, Michelle Obama honoured flag and country. She was introduced by Elaine Brye of Winona, Ohio, a former member of the Air Force ROTC who is married to a Vietnam veteran and has four children in the military. Brye thanked

Michelle Obama for her unstinting support for military families. That's a cause Michelle Obama embraced early in her tenure, a choice made all the more apropos because some Republicans tried to cast her as unpatriotic in 2008.

But the emphasis last night also served as a subliminal rebuke to the other side. In his convention speech, Mitt Romney didn't mention troops risking their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan; his wife didn't mention their loved ones back home. As she did at the 2008 convention, Michelle Obama told the story of her working-class parents' struggle to provide, and Barack Obama's childhood as the son of a single white mother.

Before Ann Romney could plump up her husband's image, she had to adjust her own, assuring the audience that she isn't just another rich, sheltered Republican lady who lunches. Dressed in a chic but simple red shirtwaist, Ann Romney was enthusiastic and giddy but less polished as she described herself as the granddaughter of a Welsh miner, and as a mother of five who cast her lot with all those mothers who, as she put it, "know the fastest route to the local emergency room and which doctors actually answer the phone when you call at night."

Michelle Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer who long resisted giving up her career, proudly called herself the "Mom-in-Chief."

New York Times