Michelle Obama steals the show at Democratic convention

On day of party tensions, US first lady makes deeply personal plea to unite behind Clinton

US first lady Michelle Obama stole the show on the first night of the Democratic national convention in Philadelphia, imploring voters in a deeply personal speech to unite behind Hillary Clinton.

On a day when internal party fissures surfaced between Mrs Clinton's supporters and those of her runner-up, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, in angry exchanges, speaker after speaker tried to the unite the party against a common adversary and training everyone's sights on Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, whom Mrs Clinton will face in the November 8th election.

Mrs Obama was most effective in her emotional address that drew not just on her and her husband, president Barack Obama, being role models for young people but being parents to two daughters facing the challenges of "an unusual life in the spotlight" as they witness the most divisive US presidential election campaign in generations, laden with vicious rhetoric and personal invective.

Echoing Mrs Clinton’s line in campaign ads against her rival showing his effect on young people, Mrs Obama put what’s at stake in this year’s election down to one thing: America’s children.


“Make no mistake about it, this November, when we got to the polls, that is what we’re deciding - not Democrat or Republican, not left or right. No, this election, and every election, is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives,” she said.

"And I am here tonight because in his election, there is only one person who I trust with that responsibility, only one person who I believe is truly qualified to be president of the United States and that is our friend, Hillary Clinton."

Without ever naming Trump, she spoke about how she and her husband urge their children “to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship and faith, how we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country, how we explain that when someone is cruel, or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level”.

“No, our motto is: ‘when they go low, we go high’,” she said, to one of the loudest cheers of the night.

Hours after Mr Sanders urged his frustrated supporters not to boo every mention of Mrs Clinton’s name or show dissent at the convention, her tougher-than-expected opponent offered a full-throated vote of confidence in the former US secretary of state, praising her plans to expand healthcare, combat climate change and create new jobs through investment in a resounding testimonial to her candidacy.

"Hillary Clinton will make an outstanding president and I am proud to stand with her here tonight," he told tens of thousands of Democrats gathered in Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Centre.

When the self-professed democratic socialist, the last speaker of the night, took the stage shortly before 11pm local time (4am Irish time), he was greeted with deafening cheers and applause and chants of “Bernie! Bernie!” ringing around the arena in a cacophony of party unity.

‘Political revolution’

It took several minutes for the applause to subside before the 74-year-old politician, whose populist campaign fired up grassroots liberals, could speak to the packed crowd.

He spoke first to his own team and supporters praising them for voting “for the political revolution”.

“I understand that many people here in this convention hall and around the country are disappointed about the final results of the nominating process. I think it’s fair to say that no one is more disappointed than I am,” he said.

“But to all of our supporters - here and around the country - I hope you take enormous pride in the historical accomplishments we have achieved.”

Mr Sanders gave a ringing endorsement for his one-time bitter rival, saying: “Any objective observer will conclude that - based on her ideas and her leadership - Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States. The choice is not even close.”

The most direct appeal to Mr Sanders's supporters came not from the senator but from comedian Sarah Silverman, a Bernie supporter who appeared on stage with Minnesota senator Al Franken, a Clinton supporter and himself a former comic, in a show of unity.

Ms Silverman delivered an unscripted line that punctured hours of tension accumulating over the leaked Democratic Party emails that showed official party bias towards Mrs Clinton in the primary.

“To the ‘Bernie or Bust’ people, you’re being ridiculous,” said Ms Silverman, leading the crowd to erupt into another bout of “Bernie! Bernie!” chants and “Hillary! Hillary!” counter-chants.

The night of speeches in a packed Democratic programme came against the backdrop of angry pro-Sanders protests in Philadelphia’s streets, with supporters even borrowing the Republican “Lock her up” chant that was heard incessantly throughout the party’s convention in Cleveland last week.

Leaked emails

The leaked emails have aggravated tensions with Bernie fans, despite Democratic efforts to quell the controversy with the party's apology to Mr Sanders and the resignation of Democratic national committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, stripping her of any role at the convention.

Tensions spilled into the convention hall early on, with even the invocation at the start of the day being interrupted by the senator’s supporters.

The appearance of liberal favourite, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, billed as the night's keynote address, bridged a gap between the rival Clinton and Sanders camps.

She offered a stinging critique of Mr Trump, blasting him for ripping off workers, investors, suppliers and students.

“What kind of a man roots for an economic crash that caused millions of people their jobs, their homes, their life savings? What kind of man cheats students, cheats investors, cheats workers?” she said.

“I’ll tell you what kind of a man - a man who must never be president of the United States. Never.”

She lambasted the billionaire for the divisions he has created in the country.

“Trump thinks he can win votes by fanning the flames of fear and hatred. By turning neighbour against neighbour. By persuading you that the real problem in America is your fellow Americans - people who don’t look like you, or don’t talk like you, or don’t worship like you,” she said

In another warmly received speech on the night, Cory Booker, the first African-American senator from New Jersey, drew a sharp contrast to the darkly pessimistic vision of the United States painted by Mr Trump in his acceptance speech last week.

Mr Booker adopted a refrain from a famous Maya Angelou poem, Still I Rise, repeatedly telling the crowd, "America, we will rise!" The audience responded by staying on its feet for most of his rousing 20-minute address.

But the night belonged to Michelle Obama. In a personal reference to the historic significance of Mrs Clinton being officially named the first female presidential nominee from a major political party in two days, she pointed to the effect of her ground-breaking campaign on the Obama children.

"I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves - and I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn," she said, fighting back tears as she spoke.

“And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters - and all our sons and daughters - now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”

After a day that saw Bernie Sanders supporters live through a rollercoaster of emotions, the crunch questions remains - can the party unite behind Hillary Clinton by the time she accepts the Democratic presidential nomination in her acceptance speech on Thursday night?


Judging by the reaction the convention floor last night, many are still unsure.

"I sort of felt like throwing up," said a drained-looking Sanders supporter, John Carlo Espinosa from Key West in Florida. "To me and many of us, it feels like that we have to do more to have an effect on this convention."

Maria Carrillo, an at-large party delegate for Mr Sanders from Orlando in Florida, has come around to voting for Clinton in November because she cannot vote for Donald Trump.

“We have a choice between a demagogue who’s a fascist or Hillary Clinton. And Hillary Clinton has made good strides to support Bernie’s issues and we will continue to fight together,” she said.

Margaret Murphy, from Buffalo, New York, said that it was "great night" with impressive speeches from Mr Booker, Mrs Obama and Mr Sanders, but there were "some rough times" and "a lot of booing."

“We’ve all been in campaigns where we haven’t been on the winning side,” she said. “But I hope over time that if people listen to great speeches from people like Cory Booker and Michelle Obama, by the end of the convention, we will all be together like one united party.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times