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Will Michelle Obama's speech change history?

By Gordon Stewart, Special to CNN
updated 1:03 PM EDT, Wed September 5, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gordon Stewart: If Barack Obama is re-elected, he will owe much to his first lady
  • Stewart: Michelle Obama gave one of the finest speeches ever at a political convention
  • He says first lady was not afraid to use the word love, rarely conveyed in politics
  • Stewart: She may have opened a path for her husband back into voters' hearts

Editor's note: Gordon Stewart is former deputy chief speechwriter to President Jimmy Carter and currently moderator of TheNextDeal.org, an online project to revise the U.S. social contract for the 21st century.

(CNN) -- If Barack Obama is re-elected on November 6, he will owe more to his first lady than any president ever to win a second term.

On Tuesday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, Michelle Obama gave one of the finest speeches ever delivered at a national political convention. More important, it could have more impact on the immediate future of the country than her husband's celebrated 2004 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Why?

Her speech tied the Obamas' personal stories directly to the lives of millions of voters struggling not to be the first generation of Americans unable to offer hope of greater opportunities to their children than they had, thus drawing a contrast with Mitt Romney as an unnamed but unmistakable caricature of privilege without shading her talk with negativity or animosity.

What candidates' wives are telling us

In fact the overall emotion, and there was far more real as opposed to rhetorical emotion than any speech at this level in memory, was a feeling rarely conveyed in our political language today -- love.

Gordon Stewart
Gordon Stewart

The first lady was not afraid to use the word love openly and often, in relation to working people of all classes, armed services families, immigrants, parents and especially to her husband and her children. And she was not afraid to show an emotional connection to her words in a performance that was as remarkable for its passion and sincerity as for its many quotable lines.

First family watches

Like humor, authentic feeling is risky business in historic addresses, but the rewards can be a level of connection and a sense of strength deeper than any amount of lectern-pounding can drive home.

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But while these qualities, like the many others now being cited by commentators of all beliefs and backgrounds, help explain why the first lady's speech already has a place in the history books, they do not explain why it may actually change what will be written in them. Should that occur, it will be because almost for the first time in four years, she single-handedly brought Democrats to tears and to their feet at the idea of Barack Obama as president of the United States.

Insiders' views from the DNC

Because however much the Obama campaign seeks to deny it, the fact is that the priorities, conduct and accomplishments of the Obama administration have been a disappointment to many Democrats.

Some have said that Obama's political high-water mark might have been election night of 2008. Now four years later, he finds himself having to reinspire millions of citizens who feel that for too long he sought too many accommodations with those who did so much damage and who have always sought to destroy him.

Michelle Obama has redefined black women

Tuesday night, his wife with the singular American title of first lady may have opened a path for her husband back into the hearts of those who had such high hopes for his audacity.

It will be up to him whether to choose change over comity when a leader cannot have both, and win the opportunity to give a second inaugural address that will be better than his first, as perhaps a second term may be more successful on more fronts than his first. For as Mrs. Obama reminded the nation Tuesday night, "Being president doesn't change who you are. ... It reveals who you are."

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gordon Stewart.

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