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Five problems with Michelle Obama's speech no one is likely to talk about

The former first lady said a Biden presidency would usher in racial justice and ease the coronavirus pandemic, but her speech was riddled with contradictions and half-truths
A person watches former First Lady Michelle Obama speak during the opening night of the Democratic National Convention (AFP)

On Monday, Michelle Obama delivered what is being described by some as a speech for the ages.  

Addressing the Democratic National Convention (DNC), the former first lady presented a moral case for voters to turn out and vote for the Democratic party's nominee in November's presidential election.

Michelle Obama spoke about the rise of hate under President Donald Trump, the failures by the White House in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, and made an impassioned plea to "restore the soul of this nation" by voting for Joe Biden.

She tore into Trump, describing him as the "wrong president for our country".

"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." 

Despite the plaudits from pundits and celebrities alike, Michelle Obama's speech was mired in contradictions and half-truths that continue to envelop the Democratic party's bid to remove Trump.

Here are five sections from her speech that underline some of these problems:

1. "A president's words have the power to move markets. They can start wars or broker peace. They can summon our better angels or awaken our worst instincts. You simply cannot fake your way through this job. As I've said before, being president doesn't change who you are; it reveals who you are. Well, a presidential election can reveal who we are, too. And four years ago, too many people chose to believe that their votes didn't matter. Maybe they were fed up. Maybe they thought the outcome wouldn't be close. Maybe the barriers felt too steep. Whatever the reason, in the end, those choices sent someone to the Oval Office who lost the national popular vote by nearly 3,000,000 votes."

Almost four years after the 2016 election, Michelle Obama has continued to insinuate that Trump's election victory was antithetical to American political history and brought about by voter apathy.

She refused to mention the role played by previous governments, including the Obama administration, in excerbating income inequality. 

Acclaimed theologian and philosopher Cornel West wrote just days after Trump's 2016 election victory that one of the reasons white working- and middle-class Americans voted for the former reality TV star was "out of anger and anguish" and to reject "the economic neglect of neoliberal policies and the self-righteous arrogance of elites".

2. "Internationally, we've turned our back, not just on agreements forged by my husband, but on alliances championed by presidents like Reagan and Eisenhower."

Trump's foreign policy decisions have undeniably undermined US relations, made a mockery of climate treaties and helped embolden authoritarians around the globe. But for those not allied with the US, the world was not any safer when Barack Obama was president. 

The Obama administration frequently used drones to carry out extra-judicial killings in countries such as Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan - including the targeting of US citizens there.

The two-term Obama also contributed to the devastation of Libya and gave tacit approval to the 2013 military coup in Egypt.

So while President Obama enjoyed respect in Europe, he was no hero in places where the US military reigned supreme.

"The hopes behind his early receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize - that he would lead a new kind of US foreign relations, built to a large extent on defending human rights - were left unfulfilled," Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote of Obama's human rights record in late 2016.

"In fact, he has often treated human rights as a secondary interest - nice to support when the cost was not too high, but nothing like a top priority he championed."

Michelle Obama has herself played a crucial role in recent years in normalising and reshaping the public persona of George W Bush, who until Trump, was loathed internationally due to the 2003 invasion of Iraq that was responsible for at least 400,000 deaths between 2003 to 2011.

3. "They see people shouting in grocery stores, unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe. They see people calling the police on folks minding their own business just because of the colour of their skin. They see an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good, and winning is everything because as long as you come out on top, it doesn’t matter what happens to everyone else."

Here, Michelle Obama wades once more into the myth of American decency and tolerance. It's also disingenuous given that America has consistently rewarded greed, and the Obama administration itself played its part in perpetuating this greed, especially after the financial crisis in 2008.

Michelle Obama's comments are also a rehash of what President Obama said in 2010: "This Labor Day, we are reminded that we didn’t become the most prosperous country in the world by rewarding greed and recklessness. We did it by rewarding hard work and responsibility. We did it by recognising that we rise or we fall together as one nation – one people – all of us vested in one another. That is how we have succeeded in the past. And that is how we will not only rebuild this economy, but rebuild it stronger than ever before."

But this is not how Cornel West remembers it.

"Right-wing attacks on Obama - and Trump-inspired racist hatred of him - have made it nearly impossible to hear the progressive critiques of Obama," West said.

"The president has been reluctant to target black suffering - be it in overcrowded prisons, decrepit schools or declining workplaces. Yet despite that, we get celebrations of the neoliberal status quo couched in racial symbolism and personal legacy. Meanwhile, poor and working class citizens of all colors have continued to suffer in relative silence."

David Deyen, the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street's Great Foreclosure Fraud, wrote in 2017 that Obama "failed to overhaul or shrink a financial system that represents everything wrong with the modern economy".

"The truth is that Obama is perfectly comfortable with raking in Wall Street cash. After all, it aligns well with someone who spent massive political capital to shield financial executives from their self-inflicted wounds. Taking this money won't undermine what Obama believes in; it is what he believes in."

4. "Joe Biden wants all of our kids to go to a good school, see a doctor when they're sick, live on a healthy planet. And he's got plans to make all of that happen. Joe Biden wants all of our kids, no matter what they look like, to be able to walk out the door without worrying about being harassed or arrested or killed. He wants all of our kids to be able to go to a movie or a math class without being afraid of getting shot. He wants all our kids to grow up with leaders who won't just serve themselves and their wealthy peers, but will provide a safety net for people facing hard times."

Here, there are three issues:

Under Biden, all children will not be able to see a doctor if they get sick. Biden and the Democratic party platform are yet to adopt a single-payer health system, a plan which would create a national health insurance plan available for all Americans.

This is a particularly sticky issue for the party given that a poll earlier this year found that 69 percent of registered voters support Medicare for All and 88 percent of Democrats supported it too. 

Congressman Ro Khanna said ahead of this week's convention: "I can't in good conscience support a platform without Medicare for All.

"In this pandemic, millions have lost their jobs and their health coverage. Now is the moment to say health care shouldn’t be dependent on your employment. Health care should be a universal right."

Then there is the matter of race. Biden worked with segregationists - a point that his now running-mate Kamala Harris raised during an earlier debate with the Democratic party nominee.

And on the issue of children, Michelle Obama's comments ring hollow when faced with facts. 

In her speech, she eviscerated President Donald Trump for separating migrant children from their parents and putting them into cages. An Associated Press fact check described her assertion as "a frequent and distorted point made widely by Democrats".

"She’s right that Trump’s now-suspended policy at the US-Mexico border separated thousands of children from their families in ways that had not been done before. But what she did not say is that the very same “cages” were built and used in her husband’s administration, for the same purpose of holding migrant kids temporarily."

And then there are other inconvenient, often forgotten crimes.

Through the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, the US government was banned from providing military assistance to countries guilty of using child soldiers. But if it is in the national interest, the president can waive the ruling, which Obama did repeatedly in Sudan, Yemen and the DRC. Between 2010-2016, the Obama-Biden administration signed off an estimated $1bn in arms sales and military assistance to countries with records of child soldiers.

5. "This is not the time to withhold our votes in protest or play games with candidates who have no chance of winning. We have got to vote like we did in 2008 and 2012."

In 2016, there were many Americans who couldn't believe that the race was between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton - and as a result abstained. Others chose a third or fourth candidate.

In her speech on Monday, Michelle Obama urged Americans to vote and to vote for Biden, and not play games with those candidates "who have little chance of winning".

But besides defeating Trump, Michelle Obama was not able to present a case of what exactly would change should Biden succeed. 

Vox Media noted that whereas in her 2016 speech at the DNC she mentioned "vote" once, she mentioned it 12 times on Monday. To hammer the point home, she also had the letters "v o t e" dangling from her necklace.

"Undoubtedly our best selling style. Nothing spells luxe like something made just for you. This piece will grow with you, is always in style, on trend and age appropriate. VOTE your heart out and get it in the world's finest metals," the description of the necklace on the designer website, reads.

The necklace, which retails for $295, went viral after her speech - but it is yet unclear if voting will. 

To read her speech in full, click here.