By Amie Parnes - 09/05/12 03:08 AM EDT
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — First lady Michelle Obama depicted the president as her “kindred spirit” in a prime-time address Tuesday that made the political case her husband is also a kindred spirit for all Americans.
Headlining the opening day of the Democratic National Convention, the first lady — with her high approval ratings — sought to highlight her husband’s populist pitch, emphasizing his middle-class roots in an effort to lure women and minorities to his side.
“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,” Michelle Obama said as the crowd in the arena erupted in applause.
“And he believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that door of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you, you reach back and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed,” the first lady said to a growing roar from the convention's delegates.
The speech took no explicit jabs at Romney, but sought to underline Democratic campaign themes with personal stories about her husband’s character that emphasized his humble background.
She also cast him as a leader whose decisions in office reflected what he felt was right for the country, not for his political career, including on his controversial healthcare reform bill, the signature issue of his first term.
“When it comes to the health of our families, Barack refused to listen to all those folks who told him to leave health reform for another day, another president,” the first lady said. “He didn’t care whether it was the easy thing to do politically — that’s not how he was raised — he cared that it was the right thing to do.”
A typically highly private first lady, she sought to bring the audience into the Obamas' home, recounting stories about a man who spends his time “poring over the letters that people have sent him” and “answering questions about issues in the news from his daughters” while “strategizing about middle-school friendships."
And just like Romney’s wife, Ann, a week earlier, she mentioned the word love 15 times. “We were so young, so in love, and so in debt,” she said to hearty laughter, referring to her early struggles with her husband to point to his support for students and financial aid.
“In the end, for Barack, these issues aren’t political — they’re personal,” said Obama, who spent several weeks working on the speech, honing her voice for a pivotal moment at the convention, according to an aide.
“Because 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.
Before the first lady took the stage on Tuesday night, the president was on the trail bragging about his wife and calling her a “star.”
Appearing on the stump in Norfolk, Va., the president compared the convention to a “relay” race, telling more than 11,000 supporters who gathered at his last stop before he heads to Charlotte, “You start out with the fastest person.
“Whatever I say here today, it’s going to be at best a distant second to the speech you will hear tonight from the star of the Obama family,” the president said.
“I’m going to be at home, watching it with my girls, and I’m going to try not to let them see their daddy cry. Because when Michelle starts talking, I start getting all misty.”
The first lady has consistently had high approval ratings throughout her husband’s administration, moving past her lightning-rod stage, where she was the target of conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh and the late Andrew Breitbart. In May, a Gallup poll indicated that she had a 66 percent approval rating. Around the same time in 2008, she was faced with a 43 percent favorable rating.
Now she has been labeled the president’s greatest secret weapon, headlining nearly 50 fundraisers and appearing on dozens of television shows to help humanize her husband. On Tuesday, as she took to the podium, she was met with a loud roar from the crowd, who held signs reading, "We Love Michelle."
Lawmakers at the convention said Michelle Obama's portrait of the family's early struggles could help Democrats with the middle class, which has traditionally favored Republicans.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) called it “one of the best speeches I've ever heard in my life.” He said there's “no doubt” the Obamas' story resonates more with the average American than Romney's childhood as the son of Michigan millionaire politician George Romney.
“She laid out the case that it's a night about not just the election, it's about something even bigger than that: It's about future generations and making sure that we continue this journey for our children,” he said. “By the time this convention is over, I anticipate that we will have picked up some points.”
—Julian Pecquet contributed to this story.
This story was updated at 11:46 p.m.