PHILADELPHIA — When you want to put on a memorable show, you cast a superstar to get it started. Was anyone surprised to see a Michelle Obama speech scheduled for Monday, Day One of the Democratic National Convention?
Without even attending the convention the Republicans just wrapped up in Cleveland, the first lady found a way to dominate in the most visible way possible; her words anchored the prime time speech of Melania Trump. Like many women of all political persuasions I’ve interviewed through two terms of President Barack Obama and his family in the White House, the wife of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump found inspiration and something relatable in Michelle Obama.
Ask those who have viewed the video of the first lady’s “carpool karaoke” on an appearance on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” having fun with Corden and Missy Elliott and delivering a serious message about her Let Girls Learn initiative to educate girls around the globe.
Hillary Clinton has said she is not as gifted a campaigner as her husband, Bill Clinton, or President Obama. She could have added Michelle Obama to that list. She has the touch; she can connect. On Monday, she will use that gift to support the candidate who was her husband’s rival in 2008. Barack Obama’s legacy will depend on Hillary Clinton’s success in November.
How will she best be used as a surrogate after this week? Appearing side by side is tricky, given some suggestions that Michelle Obama should consider a run of her own, following the Clinton playbook. She could appear before the African-American female voters Clinton needs to turn out or the young voters she has had trouble attracting. With her crossover appeal, where Michelle Obama goes hardly matters. That she will be visible is essential.
On Monday, she will also be called on to be peacemaker, with dissent in the Democratic Party brewing. Also scheduled to speak is Bernie Sanders, who gave Clinton a run for her money in the primaries. He has endorsed Clinton and really does not want a Donald Trump presidency. That, he’s made clear.
But Sanders and his supporters are none too happy about leaked Democratic National Committee emails that show staffers disparaging him and his campaign. DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is stepping down after the convention. Sanders would also have preferred to see someone other than Tim Kaine in the VP spot.
So will anticipation of Michelle Obama blunt the fissures in any way, as viewers wonder if she will slip in a sly Melania joke, reprise a Stevie Wonder verse or emphasize her own work in the White House, from healthy eating programs to helping military families. And admit it, people will also be looking to see what she will be wearing, as she made a statement in 2012 with her highly praised speech and a Tracy Reese pink dress.
The country has gotten to know her, especially as she has shared personal and poignant parts of her life story at commencement speeches, several in front of first-generation graduates of historically black colleges and universities.
It is one of hard work that triumphs over adversity, reflected in her journey from a false caricature of an “angry black woman” through criticism from conservatives who thought she did too much to some feminists who thought she didn’t do enough and from some who believed that her proud and beautiful African-American “self” did not “fit.”
She has broken the mold and set a new standard, and, in the process, has become President Obama’s not-so-secret weapon. Will she do the same in what promises to be a bruising campaign for Hillary Clinton? All eyes and ears will be looking for that pivot, starting on Monday night in Philadelphia.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3 .