By Alex Seitz-Wald
WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama delivered a scathing indictment of President Donald Trump’s policies and character Monday on the first night of the all-virtual Democratic National Convention, accusing the White House of sowing “chaos” and “division” and showing a “total and utter lack of empathy.”
Coming at the end of a jam-packed two-hour program that tackled the coronavirus crisis, racial justice and the nation’s economic woes, Obama began by acknowledging Americans’ weariness with the current state of affairs.
“I know a lot of folks are reluctant to tune into a political convention right now or to politics in general. Believe me, I get that,” she said. “You know I hate politics.”
But the former first lady, who has never entertained calls to run for office despite being one of the most popular women in the world, said now is no time to check out.
“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,” she said.
Obama said Trump “is clearly in over his head” in handling the coronavirus crisis despite ample time to catch up.
“He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is,” she said.
Obama added: “Whenever we look to this White House for some leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness, what we get instead is chaos, division, and a total and utter lack of empathy. We know that what’s going on in this country is just not right.”
The former first lady warned that Trump would do everything he could to stay in power and that the only way to stop him was to commit to vote him out in overwhelming numbers.
“We’ve got to be willing to stand in line all night (to vote) if we have to,” Obama said. “We have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”
On Tuesday morning, Trump responded on Twitter to the former first lady, saying that he became president because of “the job done by your husband, Barack Obama.”
Speaking before her, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont made a similar appeal, focused not on the politically weary but on the politically active people who supported him. He subtly invoked his own Jewish family’s experience in the Holocaust to warn that Trump is trying to destroy democracy.
“Under this administration, authoritarianism has taken root in our country. I, and my family, and many of yours, know the insidious way authoritarianism destroys democracy, decency and humanity,” Sanders said. “As long as I am here, I will work with progressives, with moderates, and, yes, with conservatives to preserve this nation from a threat that so many of our heroes fought and died to defeat.”
Sanders touted the success his two presidential campaigns have had in moving the Democratic Party and the nation to the left, but said it could all be for naught if Biden does not win.
“I say to you, to everyone who supported other candidates in the primary and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump in the last election: The future of our democracy is at stake,” he said. “We must come together, defeat Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as our next president and vice president.”
The socially distanced convention was unlike any other before it. Actress Eva Longoria served as emcee, interviewing everyday Americans over video chat between politicians’ speeches, some of which concluded with many tiny video boxes of people applauding from their couch at home.
The virtual format allowed for a wider range of backdrops and for the program to stick closely to schedule, but it also felt eerily quiet and rootless at times with no cheering crowds in a packed arena to center the proceedings. There were a few minor technical glitches, such as speakers unsure of when to begin, but they did little to disrupt the flow.
Addressing the pandemic, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state “went through hell” because of COVID-19 before turning the corner, blamed Trump for botching the crisis from the get-go, while Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised “science, not politics or ego” will guide a Biden-Harris administration.
But a more powerful moment came from Kristin Urquiza, an Arizona woman whose Trump-supporting father died of COVID-19 after going to a karaoke bar because, she said, he believed the president that the virus was contained.
“My dad was a healthy 65 year old,” Urquiza said. “His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life.”
George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, called for a moment of silence for Black people killed by police.
“George should be alive today. Breonna Taylor should be alive today. Ahmaud Arbery should be alive today,” he said. “They should all be alive today.”
And South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, who helped revive Biden’s flagging presidential campaign with a last-minute endorsement before his state’s Democratic primary in February, spoke from Charleston, which he noted was once the nation’s major slave port where people who looked like him were traded as chattel.
“Eighty percent of African Americans in this country can claim an ancestor who arrived on these shores in bondage — a few blocks from here at Gadsden’s Wharf,” Clyburn said. “The ground beneath our feet is seeded with pain that is both old and new. But from that soil we always find a way to grow together.”
Democrats also used the convention to make a direct appeal to Republicans turned off by Trump.
“I’m a longtime Republican and a longtime CEO. And let me tell you, Donald Trump has no clue how to run a business, let alone an economy,” she said.
Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who ran against Trump for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, stood at a literal crossroads to say the country had to choose the right path.
“I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat. They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind,” Kasich said. “I don’t believe that because I know the measure of the man. It’s reasonable, faithful, respectful, and, you know, no one pushes Joe around.”
And the Democrats also focused on portraying unity within the Democratic Party.
Many of the candidates who lost to Biden appeared together in a video supporting him, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, billionaire Tom Steyer, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
“The president may hate the post office, but he’s still going to have to send them a change of address card come January,” Klobuchar said. (Source: NBC News)
Alex Seitz-Wald is senior digital politics reporter for NBC News.