In 2016, when first lady Michelle Obama spoke on the Democratic National Convention’s opening night, she didn’t mention then-candidate Donald Trump by name.
That year, in front of a cheering crowd, Obama described the president’s role in setting an example and charting the future for America’s children. She said Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, understood that the presidency is “about leaving something better for our kids.”
She also fended off attacks on her family from Trump and his allies. “Our motto is: When they go low, we go high,” Obama said to applause.
This year, there was no live audience to clap as Obama spoke during the convention’s opening night again. Her remarks were pre-taped, a function of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 170,000 Americans.
Unlike in 2016, she took on Trump by name in 2020 while contrasting him with former Vice President Joe Biden. And she circled back to the phrase she made memorable four years ago.
“Over the past four years, a lot of people have asked me, ‘When others are going so low, does going high still really work?,’” Obama said. “My answer: Going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else.”
Here, we’ll compare Obama’s 2020 and 2016 convention speeches.
On Trump’s capacity to govern
The former first lady tore into Trump in 2020, ripping both his personality and his policies.
“Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” she said. “He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.”
Obama criticized the separation of immigration families at the border under Trump and the use of pepper spray to disburse peaceful protesters for a photo opportunity in D.C., among other things. She said that in times of crisis, the White House has failed to respond appropriately.
“Whenever we look to this White House for some leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness, what we get instead is chaos, division, and a total and utter lack of empathy,” she said.
Obama didn’t name-check Trump in 2016. But she did criticize him for attacking her husband, using “hateful language” and acting “like a bully.”
“The issues a president faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters,” Obama said in 2016, in a swipe at Trump’s frequent tweeting.
“When you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions,” she said. “You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out.”
On the state of the U.S.
In both 2020 and 2016, Obama described the American story as a tale of hard-won progress.
This year, she said the American story is the story of “all those folks who sacrificed and overcame so much in their own times because they wanted something more.” It has “a lot of beauty,” she said, as well as “a lot of struggle and injustice and work left to do.”
In 2016, she celebrated the generations of people who faced slavery and segregation but “kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” (The White House was built by slaves, we found.)
Her description of the country in 2020 was less glowing, a change she attributed to Trump. Despite “the goodness and the grace that is out there,” she said the U.S. today is “a nation that’s underperforming not simply on matters of policy, but on matters of character.”
“If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can. And they will if we don’t make a change in this election,” Obama said.
Americans are still “compassionate, resilient, decent people whose fortunes are bound up with one another,” she said. “And it is well past time for our leaders to once again reflect our truth.”
On the importance of voting
Obama closed her 2020 speech by encouraging voting, an issue she has worked on in the past.
She said 2020 is “not the time to withhold our votes in protest or play games with candidates who have no chance of waiting,” and she called on voters to request mail-in ballots “tonight.”
“We have got to grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown bag dinner and maybe breakfast too, because we’ve got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to,” she said.
That push to the polls echoed remarks she made in 2016, although her remarks then were not as detailed. “We cannot sit back and hope that everything works out for the best,” Obama said. — Bill McCarthy