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Michelle Obama Lays Down the (Election) Law

Obama bemoaned the damage she said President Donald Trump has done to the nation, erasing the progress made by her husband, President Barack Obama.(HANDOUT/DNCC VIA GETTY IMAGES)

MICHELLE OBAMA HAD A blunt, impassioned message for Americans Monday night: do whatever you can to get out and vote for Joe Biden or the future of the country is in peril.

Obama, delivering the headliner speech at the first night of the virtual Democratic Convention, bemoaned the damage she said President Donald Trump has done to the nation, erasing the progress made by her husband, President Barack Obama. She called for a new kind of empathy – the kind that means not just helping out a neighbor, but acting assertively in the face of hate and ignorance of science.

And she made it clear that even for those who didn’t have Biden at the top of their lists for the Democratic nominee for president, the stakes are too high to stay home or waste a vote on a third-party contender with no hope of winning.

“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, delivering a taped message during an evening when some speakers spoke live (though from remote locations). “If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it,” Obama said.

The former first lady recalled her own exhortations at the 2016 convention, when she railed against then-candidate Trump for his remarks about women, people of color and people with disabilities. At the time, Obama said, “when they go low, we go high.”

After four years of Trump – and with the president, Obama said, having every chance to prove he was up to the task – that entreaty still stands, the former first lady said. “Going high is the only thing that works,” she said. “Going high means unlocking the shackles of lies and mistrust with the only thing that can truly set us free: the cold hard truth.”

Her most direct, searing indictment of the president was an attack on his basic competence to do the job her husband held for 8 years. “Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” Obama said. “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,” she added with a slight note of sarcasm, a reference to Trump’s “it is what it is” comment when asked about the number of Americans dead from the coronavirus.

The first night of the all-virtual convention went off without much of a hitch (the remarks of Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina were delayed a couple of seconds because of an apparent technical problem). The event lacked the excitement and energy of a live audience, but included professionally-produced videos that gave viewers a break between speeches during the two hours of primetime coverage.

At times, the event had the tone of a telethon, with performances by musical artists followed by stories told by regular Americans and remarks by former primary foes of Biden. The host of the convention, actor Eva Longoria Bastón, urged viewers to go online to donate to the campaign.

What the party could not do with live shots, it did with video and graphics. The convention opened with a grinning African American child cheerfully opening a rendition of the national anthem, then being joined by a diverse group of Americans representing each state and territory.

The speeches, which, without a live audience, ran the risk of sounding like online tutorials, were interspersed with slick videos showing both the candidate and Americans grappling with two major crises facing the nation – the pandemic and the fight against systemic racism.

Footage of Black Lives Matter protesters mixed with smiling faces representing a wide swath of ethnicities and ages; Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” provided the soundtrack. Visuals of rural American fields, a New York City subway station and small town streets set the message the Democrats want voters to absorb: that the party represents all kinds of people from all parts of the country.

George Floyd’s family talked about honoring Floyd’s legacy by fighting for racial justice, and led a moment of silence for the man whose last words – “I can’t breathe” – became a mantra for protesters.

Though presidential nominees tend not to speak publicly at conventions until they accept their nomination, the convention featured footage of Biden holding a pre-recorded, virtual roundtable about countering racism.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York delivered a speech about how division in the country was imperiling American’s ability to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control – a modern take on the “Tale of Two Cities” speech his father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, delivered in the keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Several prominent Republicans and some unknown ones also relayed how they would cast votes for Biden after voting for Trump in 2016.

While elected officials were the traditional headliners, some of the most compelling testimonials came from regular Americans – military members, health care workers on the forefront of the coronavirus crisis, and activists battling racism. One of the most poignant videos came from an Arizona woman, Kristin Urquiza, who talked about how her otherwise healthy 65-year-old father, a Trump supporter, contracted COVID at a karaoke bar and died alone in the hospital from the virus.

“His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life,” Urquiza said, adding that she was voting for Biden and “I am not alone.”

Former primary foes of Biden’s did a tag-team endorsement of Biden, along with critical remarks about Trump. They complained about his immigration policy, his derisive comments about the Black Lives Matter movement and his attacks on the U.S. Postal Service – a policy Democrats worry will keep eligible voters from casting a ballot this fall.

“The president may hate the post office, but he’s still going to have to send them a change of-address card come January,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a former presidential contender herself, said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders had his own speaking spot, and urged his followers to vote for Biden even if they didn’t fully agree with the former vice president. Sanders – some of whose supporters booed when he asked them in 216 to back then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – said democracy itself was at stake in this election.

“Under this administration, authoritarianism has taken root in our country,” Sanders said. “Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” the senator said. “Trump golfs.”

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