First Lady: Obamas Understand Americans' Struggles

First Lady: Obamas Understand Americans' Struggles

By Erin McPike - September 5, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- To hear Michelle Obama and her fellow Democrats tell it, President Obama feels your pain.

In an opening-night speech to her party's national convention on Tuesday, the first lady walked the audience through some familiar stories about the president's upbringing and her own. Before the couple met, their parents and grandparents endured mighty financial hardships: “Barack was raised by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills, and by grandparents who stepped in when she needed help.”

The convention’s keynote speaker, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, laid out his own humble background. “My grandmother spent her whole life working as a maid, a cook and a babysitter, barely scraping by, but still working hard to give my mother, her only child, a chance in life, so that my mother could give my brother and me an even better one,” he said.

In an election in which the Republican opponent is the wealthiest major-party nominee ever to run for president, many of Tuesday’s speakers hammered Mitt Romney for not understanding the basic accounting struggles that families face. By the end of the evening’s program, the first lady and the San Antonio mayor tried to cement the notion that they do understand those strains through their own rags-to-riches versions of the American Dream.

Even without naming Romney, the first lady took aim at the GOP standard-bearer and defended her party against Republican assertions that Democrats are attacking Romney’s success in business.

“They didn’t begrudge anyone else’s success or care that others had much more than they did,” she said of her parents and the president’s family. “In fact, they admired it.”

“We learned about honesty and integrity -- that the truth matters, that you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules . . . and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square,” she continued, perhaps hinting at criticism that Romney has avoided paying full taxes by parking money in overseas investments.

In many ways, Mrs. Obama’s address mirrored Ann Romney’s speech at the Republican nominating convention just one week before in Tampa. She told her own version of a couple scraping by early in their marriage: Just as the Romneys subsisted on pasta and tuna in their early days together, the Obamas spent more on student loans than they did on their mortgage.

“Barack knows what it means when a family struggles. He knows what it means to want something more for your kids and grandkids,” she said. “Barack knows the American Dream because he’s lived it, and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love.”

The Obamas’ story hit home with some of their biggest fans: convention delegates.

Amy Miller, a research administrator from Indiana University, told RCP after the speech: "I think she really nailed . . . the narrative of ‘look at the difference between these two individuals who want to be leaders of the free world.’ It was a raw image that was evoking a lot of emotion in our section. . . . The total difference in upbringings. You carry that with you.”

Added Jaclyn O’Day from Springfield, Ill.: “Painting a picture of from the time they met to what happens at the dinner table, being by the president when he is making those hard decisions, helps us to realize that they’re a family too and they are going through struggles and have the best interest of our country and our citizens in mind.”

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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