CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In a long, impassioned speech last night, Michelle Obama tried one last time before the primary here to combat the idea that she and her husband were elitists, and excoriated Hillary Clinton for her gas-tax “holiday” proposal and her 2002 vote on Iraq.
The personal slights aimed at her family seemed to irk Ms. Obama most of all.
“See, there’s a whole lot of talk in this race about elitism and people being out of touch,” she told a crowd of approximately 1,500 in the Ovens auditorium.
“Let me tell you something: the last thing I thought [was] that of the candidates running in this race, that Barack and I would be pegged as the elitists.
“I tell you, that came as a shock to my system,” she added, as members of the audience laughed and cheered. “I’m like, ‘Man, isn’t politics great?’”
Ms. Obama underlined her working-class upbringing on the south side of Chicago. She also sought to emphasize the modest nature of her and her husband’s lives, recalling that they only fully paid off their student debts a few years ago.
“You imagine: when was the last time you’ve seen a president of the United States just a few years outside of paying down their loan debt? The only reason we’re not in debt today, to this very day, is because Barack wrote two best-selling books. It was like hitting the lotto.”
Turning her attention to policy matters, Ms. Obama ridiculed “this gas holiday everybody’s talking about.” She joked that “the theory is that if they call it a holiday it’ll feel like a gift.”
She described the proposal as the “kind of political gimmick that has been the hallmark of Washington.”
Ms. Obama sought to tie that debate to the much larger issue of how – in her eyes, at least – her husband has an aversion to acting out of political expediency. Segueing from the gas-tax proposal to a discussion of the war in Iraq, she argued that her husband’s opposition to that war was “Exhibit A” when it came to proving his integrity.
“If you want to know who these candidates are and what they do in times of crisis, we have evidence,” she said.
She added that “none of the other candidates found the courage” to oppose the war, instead declaring their support using “their insider Washington lingo.”
The duration of Ms. Obama’s speech – 67 minutes – was considerably longer than the addresses the candidates themselves usually give. But the crowd’s attention never seemed to wander; in fact, the speech was often interrupted by applause and shouts of approval.
Ms. Obama insisted that with every success the Illinois senator’s campaign enjoyed – early fund-raising strength, powerful on-the-ground organizing, victory in the Iowa caucuses – the pundit classes found a new, unfulfilled metric by which they said he should be judged.
After Iowa, she said, “all of a sudden Iowa was no longer important. … I’m scratching my head, ’cause I’m trying to keep up.”
But she sought to connect the campaign’s frustrations with those of the American people. Referring again to the notion that the bar keeps getting moved “just out of reach” of the Obama campaign, she added, “The irony is that’s exactly what’s been happening to the American people. The bar has been moving and shifting on the vast majority of Americans.”
The notion of the moving bar remained a running theme of the speech, and it seemed to resonate especially strongly among an audience that was largely African-American.
Ms. Obama’s closing words struck the kind of tone that her critics deride as hubristic but supporters deem inspirational.
She instructed the crowd to “close your eyes and do some dreaming. … I want you to dream of the day that a man like Barack Obama is standing in front of the Capitol with a hand on the Bible to take the oath of office to become the next president of the United States.”
The rest of her words were drowned out by a thunderous standing ovation.
“The question I have for you, Charlotte, is can we do this?” she finally asked. As shouts of “yes we can” rang back, Ms. Obama said simply, “I need you tomorrow.”
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