For Michelle Obama, it’s personal.
In what immediately emerged as a landmark moment in the final stretch of the campaign, the first lady delivered an impassioned rebuke of Donald Trump — directly pitting her persona, her family, her stature, up against Trump.
“I listen to all of this and I feel it so personally,” Obama said at a campaign rally in New Hampshire. “And I’m sure that many of you do, too, particularly the women. The shameful comments about our bodies, the disrespect of our intelligence. The belief you can do anything to a woman? It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts.”
Obama said she was “shaken to her core” by Trump’s latest comments, in which he said his star power let him sexually assault women with impunity. Now she’s using her star power to defeat Trump — to keep him from moving into her house, from sitting at her husband’s desk, from leading her daughters’ country.
“Imagine waking up on November the 9th and looking into the eyes of your daughter or son,” Obama said, “or looking into your own eyes as you stare into the mirror. Imagine how you’ll feel if you stayed home, or if you didn’t do everything possible to elect Hillary. We simply cannot let that happen.”
Soon after Obama wrapped up her call to action, Hillary Clinton’s campaign sent out a text message, quoting another line from the speech, “Enough is enough,” before making the appeal: “Chip in $1 to fight for women.”
The speech was pent-up anger and righteous indignation boiling over, and Obama — a woman who once faced criticism eight years ago for seeming too angry on the trail — urged other women to stop suppressing their own emotions: to feel all the feels, give all the F’s, and vote.
Women, she said, are “just trying to get through it, trying to pretend like this doesn’t really bother us. Maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak. Maybe we’re afraid to be that vulnerable. Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet because we’ve seen that people often won’t take our word over his.”
Obama continued, “And I know it’s a campaign, but this isn’t about politics. It’s about basic human decency. It’s about right and wrong and we simply cannot endure this or expose our children to this any longer. Not for another minute, let alone for four years.”
Obama’s legacy as first lady is also at stake. Her Let Girls Learn initiative is focused on pressuring more conservative countries to expand access to education for girls and young women. Clinton also made women’s rights a central mission in her State Department, going so far as to create an Office of Global Women’s Issues, and it would clearly be a priority in her administration.
Obama on Thursday recalled a Let Girls Learn event from just days earlier, where she met girls who’d risk everything to go to school.
“I told them that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and I told them that they should disregard anyone who demeans or devalues them, and that they should make their voices heard in the world,” she recalled. “That was Tuesday. And now here I am out on the campaign trail in an election where we have consistently been hearing hurtful, hateful language about women.”
The implicit message: Trump’s example would undermine the United States’ ability to push for women’s equality around the world.
“She reminded all Americans, particularly women, what’s at stake in this election,” said EMILY’s List Communications Director Vanessa Cardenas. “The only real candidate who has the moral authority to run this nation is Hillary Clinton.”
Women were already breaking strongly for Clinton — an NBC poll from before the tape came out showed 52 percent behind Hillary, with another 38 for Trump. “It seems fair to say that, if Trump loses the election, it will be because women voted against him,” the polling analyst Nate Silver wrote on Tuesday.
But Trump’s advantage with men is comparable to Clinton’s with women. So the current furor dovetails perfectly with efforts by Clinton and her allies to get out the women’s vote.
EMILY’s List launched the site WomenCanStopTrump.org in July to highlight the Republican candidates’ insulting comments toward women — it’s been especially active this week as new recordings and allegations come to light.
“Women can stop Trump. It’s not just a slogan,” Cardenas said. “Women are the majority of the electorate. Women vote in higher numbers than their male counterparts. Women are the engines of the community.”
Obama’s message on Thursday was also geared toward disaffected Democrats and former supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose wounds were freshly salted by a trove of WikiLeaked emails showing the text of Clinton’s chummy speeches to Wall Streeters.
“For anyone who might be thinking that your one vote doesn’t really matter, or that one person can’t really make a difference consider this,” Obama said, before describing how President Barack Obama’s margin of victory in New Hampshire in 2012 had been just 66 votes in each precinct.
The latest accusations against Trump could actually be driving Democratic unity, dampening some progressives’ motivation to cast a protest vote — even in places where it wouldn’t affect the outcome.
“My perception is that Hillary will pick up votes in swing states and in safe states because of Donald Trump,” said Donna Smith, head of the Progressive Democrats of America, which endorsed Sanders in the Democratic primary and has not formally backed Clinton.
“I do think there were some people who were undecided about what they were going to do,” Smith added, “who have now made the decision that they will cast a vote for Hillary because they want to be so certain that Donald Trump will not go into the White House.”
Trump-aligned groups targeting female voters acknowledge that they have a more difficult argument.
Asked by NPR’s Steve Inskeep if Trump had put her in a “difficult spot,” Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser replied, “You bet.”
The anti-abortion group has knocked on more than half a million doors in swing states, in many cases going after independent and Democratic women who might prioritize their cause.
“For any woman who has ever been assaulted, this is a trigger moment for them,” she said of Trump’s comments.
But, she added, “for any woman who has ever been assaulted, and then ignored, or blamed, they should be upset by Hillary Clinton’s behavior and her treatment of the women, that in a serial fashion, went through her husband’s life, that she then blamed and destroyed, ridiculed, ignored.”
Ultimately, Dannenfelser said, “Where you sit is you look at the policy choices between the two. You look at a Supreme Court that will last for generations … And you look at taxpayer funding of abortion, which is an issue that we don’t believe in and she does.”
But Michelle Obama is an increasingly rare figure in today’s politics: A person with strong opinions who nonetheless earns respect not just across Democratic factions, but also across party lines.
“She exudes a kind of class and a kind of intelligent and compassion and strength that is seriously lacking in our political lives,” said Smith, who noted she hasn’t always been a fan of President Obama. “I think Michelle Obama is such a strong messenger for women and girls and just speaks the truth, and does so in a way that is very direct, and you have no doubt about where she stands on anything.”
Trump has never hesitated to go after respected figures: just ask Megyn Kelly, Sen. John McCain and the Khan family. On Thursday, speaking to reporters on Air Force One, White House spokesman Eric Schultz practically dared Trump to turn his fire on Mrs. Obama.
“I can’t think of a bolder way for Donald Trump to lose even more standing than he already has,” said Schultz, than “by engaging the first lady of the United States.”
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