WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – When Michelle Obama took the stage with Hillary Clinton here, it was a moment of mutual admiration that the country had never seen before.
“First ladies, we rock,” Obama said, turning to Clinton as the arena roared its approval.
The moment represented a high-water mark for the office of the first lady. No longer are they only serving the role of supportive spouses. They are political forces in their own right.
Obama delivered a resounding endorsement of her predecessor in the East Wing, Clinton, who is also the woman seeking to succeed Obama’s husband in the White House. She championed Clinton as the most prepared and qualified person to ever seek the office and urged voters in a critical battleground state to head to the polls.
“Hillary doesn’t play,” Obama said, reciting Clinton’s résumé as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state. “We have never had a more qualified and prepared candidate for the presidency than Hillary Clinton,” she said. “Yes, more than Barack, more than Bill. So she is absolutely ready to be commander in chief on Day One.”
Lest her point not be crystal clear, Obama added: “Yes, she happens to be a woman.”
The joining of these two women on one stage drew more than 11,000 people inside the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum and a massive line of supporters outside, many of whom came to lay eyes on the first lady who enjoys approval ratings nearly unseen in politics.
Clinton’s aides view Obama as a singular figure in the campaign: someone who is outside of the political realm with credibility and appeal across party lines. They hope that some of that credibility will rub off on Clinton, who by contrast is broadly distrusted by American voters. Even now, Clinton has been pressed by questions about the wisdom of an arrangement where former president Bill Clinton appeared to leverage donors to the family’s charitable foundation to rake in millions of dollars in paid speeches.
“I would not be here lying to you,” Obama said, promising that Clinton would be the president who met the most important criteria for the job.
Obama can also do things that Clinton often does not do for herself – at least not particularly well. Clinton has been beset by the perception that she is out of touch with Americans, and after a primary fight with a more populist Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont), she has struggled to convince some skeptical Democrats that she is committed to taking on powerful corporate interests.
Obama took the task head on, focusing on the parts of Clinton’s biography that have nothing to do with her résumé.
“Hillary’s mother was an orphan abandoned by her parents. Her father was a small-business owner who stayed up nights poring over the books, working hard to keep their family afloat,” Obama said to a quieted audience. “Believe this, Hillary knows what it means to struggle for what you have and to want something better for your kids.
Obama had come to vouch for Clinton, but Clinton spared no words praising her.
She spoke of Obama with the admiration of a woman who knows what the job of first lady requires, yet also knows that the woman currently inhabiting her former post is doing it in a way she never could. “Seriously, is there anyone more inspiring than Michelle Obama?” Clinton asked the delirious crowd at Wake Forest University.
Sitting behind her was the wife of the man who had bested her in the 2008 campaign, then turned around and made her his secretary of state. Now, the first couple are a surrogate powerhouse unseen in recent political history, lending their voice on behalf of Clinton’s candidacy even more in the final stretch of the campaign.
Later, when Obama took the podium, she informed those wondering: “Yes, Hillary Clinton is my friend.”
Clinton’s introduction of Obama was full of wistfulness, deference and gratitude, an acknowledgment that Obama is risking her virtually sterling reputation to go to bat for Clinton in a messy and dark election.
“Let’s be real. As our first African-American first lady, she’s faced pressures I never did,” Clinton said. “And she’s handled them with pure grace.”
She praised Obama’s vegetable garden, her advocacy for women and girls, her defense of military families. And, of course, the dancing skills of the first couple. “One of the privileges I’ve had is to see the president and the first lady dance,” Clinton said stretching out her hands toward the crowd as if to steady herself. “Well . . .”
The crowd screamed. And they screamed louder when Obama busted a move from her chair.
Here in North Carolina, a state whose African-American population is pivotal for Democrats, Obama’s endorsement means even more. President Obama won the state in 2008 by a narrow margin and lost it by a larger margin in 2012.
“I want you to remember that folks marched and protested for our right to vote,” Michelle Obama said. “They endured beatings and jail time. They sacrificed their lives for this right. So I know you can get yourselves to the polls to exercise that right.”
She reminded them that the burden of Clinton’s prospects in this state fall squarely on their shoulders. “If Hillary doesn’t win this election, that will be on us. It will be because we did not stand with her,” Obama said. “And that is exactly what her opponent is hoping will happen.”
Republican nominee Donald Trump, whom Obama referred to only as “her opponent,” could be credited with drawing the first lady out of her historic resistance to engaging too much in electoral politics. Her distaste for Trump dripped from every word. She pointedly denounced his suggestion that the election has already been “rigged” for Clinton.
“Just for the record, in this country, the United States of America, voters decide our elections; they’ve always decided. Votes decide who wins or loses,” Obama said. “End of story.” She added, “Right now, thankfully, folks are coming out in droves to vote early.”
Obama also noted that her story, President Obama’s story and Clinton’s story exemplify the greatness of the country: “It’s a country where a girl like me from the South Side of Chicago, whose great-great-grandfather was a slave, can go to the finest universities on earth. A country where a biracial kid from Hawaii, the son of a single mother, can make it to the White House. A country where the daughter of an orphan can break that highest and hardest glass ceiling and become president of the United States.”
“That is who we are,” she said. “That is what’s possible here in America, but only – only – when we come together.”
In fact, Obama told the crowd, the best way to live out her exhortation to “go high” when their opponents “go low” is to do it at the ballot box.
“How do we go high?” she called out.
“We vote!” the crowd yelled back.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Abby Phillip