When Michelle Obama takes the virtual stage Monday to deliver the first keynote address of the 2020 Democratic National Convention — a moment set against the backdrop of a global public health crisis — she wades into this year’s election as one of the most popular figures in the country.
The choice of Obama to kick off a week that will also include 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and the 2020 Democratic presidential ticket of Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris is no coincidence; Monday’s address will likely be among the most viewed of the convention. And the narrative Obama has used to connect with and build trust among her readers and audience could show up at the ballot box as the Becoming Vote.
The former first lady’s memoir, “Becoming,” was released in November 2018, just a week after the 2018 midterm elections that ushered in a record number of women and people of color to Congress. The memoir made the New York Times bestseller list in a week; within 15 days it was the bestselling book of the year. “Becoming,” still available in hardback, has been printed in 33 languages and sold more than 11 million copies to date.
The book launched an international book tour, an Emmy-nominated documentary, a popular, newsmaking podcast — and a diverse, intergenerational following that could translate into an army of voters into November.
“She’s got an incredible platform that she has earned over the years, with a voice that is as influential as they come,” said Valerie Jarrett, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama who has known the couple for nearly three decades. “Tonight, she will use that platform and that influence to encourage everyone to support the ticket and turnout to vote.”
The memoir’s release coincided with the announcement of an unorthodox book tour that was more conversation than lecture — but also a testament to Obama’s star power, initially selling out stadium-like settings across the country before expanding to another nearly two dozen cities in the U.S., Europe and Canada.
Deesha Dyer, who served in the Obama administration as White House Social Secretary from 2015 to 2017, described the atmosphere at the tours as electric, but also familiar.
“She got real on those tours,” said Dyer. “The book came out at a time when people were looking for and needing something they could literally hold onto, a glimmer of hope, and of not feeling alone. And to celebrate her. There was crying, screaming … it’s the effect she has on people.”
Jarrett, who moderated four of the tour stops with Obama, said she saw audiences respond to the author’s vulnerability on topics including her marriage, fertility challenges, mental health and parenting.
“The settings were all large, but she had the ability to make them feel intimate, through opening up and being honest, by talking about subjects people in positions of influence sometimes don’t,” Jarrett explained. “They cannot help but to be drawn in. Her persona transcends politics and appeals directly to people’s hearts and minds. That’s why I think she’s uniquely positioned to be very influential in this election.”
On tour, Tina Tchen, another longtime friend who became Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, said she saw Obama’s authenticity transcending traditional identity politics, drawing record crowds in red states and with predominantly white audiences. She noted the response to a recent episode of Obama’s new podcast, where she talked with longtime friend and veteran journalist Michele Norris about suffering from “low-grade depression” in the midst of the dual pandemics of coronavirus and systemic racism.
“We’re all at that point in this pandemic,” said Tchen, now the chief executive officer of Time’s Up, an organization focused on gender inequality, sexual harassment and workplace diversity. “She was expressing things we are all feeling and sometimes don’t have an ability to name.”
The Obamas have been selective about when and where they have chosen to weigh in on politics since leaving the White House in 2016. But as 2020 has come into sharper focus, former President Obama has been increasingly vocal about the threat of voter suppression, encouraging people to vote and urging more federal protections of the ballot box when he eulogized Georgia Congressman John Lewis last month.
Michelle Obama has also been focused on voter registration and turnout through her initiative, When We All Vote, which she started in 2018. She has remained more focused on participation than politics, but last week, Obama’s Instagram post congratulating Harris on her historic nomination as Biden’s vice presidential running mate — praising girls and women for their preparation, hard work, qualifications, intelligence and having a voice — was liked by more than 1.3 million people.
Monday will be another rare foray into the partisan fray. In a clip released by the Democratic National Committee called “I Know Joe,” Obama makes an appeal for the former vice president, subtly contrasting him against President Donald Trump without ever saying the president’s name.
The optics also echo Obama’s first convention speech in 2008, which came at a time when she was being caricatured by some in the Republican Party as an angry Black woman, similar in tone to some of the racial and gendered attacks recently levied at Harris.
Dyer said Obama will likely bring that same energy to the convention on Monday night, which could energize voters who may have become disillusioned with politics since the Obamas’ exit from the national stage.
“She’s not on the ballot, so she can put it all on the line as a citizen,” Dyer said. “The fact that she didn’t hold an elected office, that she’s not a politician, makes her even more real for people. She’s been one of us.”
Tchen said people can expect to hear more of Obama’s honesty in her speech, as someone who knows Joe and Jill Biden well, and “can speak with depth about the power of their leadership.”
“She doesn’t say anything she doesn’t believe in, and tonight, they will see her talk about something else she believes in and knows about,” Tchen said, predicting that Obama leading off the week will be “very powerful.”
“Those voters who might be on the fence can be persuaded, because people trust her,” she said.