[Read the full transcript of Michelle Obama’s keynote address.]
Michelle Obama, the former first lady, delivered an impassioned speech about empathy, values and the need to vote at all costs in November as she closed out the first night of the Democratic National Convention, praising the party’s nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., as a “profoundly decent man” and urging Americans to see President Trump as “clearly in over his head.”
“Whenever we look to this White House for leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness, what we get is chaos and division and a total lack of empathy,” Mrs. Obama said in a speech that was deeply critical of the current administration.
“Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can. Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” said Mrs. Obama, who normally criticizes the president in veiled terms. “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.”
“It is what it is,” she said.
Mrs. Obama, the keynote speaker on the first of four nights of her party’s unprecedented virtual convention, blamed Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016 on voter apathy that year and warned that Republicans are currently working to tamper with the election.
“We have to vote for Joe Biden in numbers that cannot be ignored. Because right now, folks who know they can’t win fair and square at the ballot box are doing everything they can to stop people from voting,” she said. “These tactics are not new. But this is not the time to withhold our votes in protest or play games with candidates who have no chance of winning. We have go to vote like we did in 2008 or 2012. We have to go show up with the same level of passion and hope.”
She urged people to vote early, request their ballots in the mail as quickly as they can — maybe tonight, she said — and be willing to “stand in line all night if we have to” to vote on Election Day.
One of the most popular figures in Democratic politics, Mrs. Obama sounded at times like she was having a frank and personal conversation with voters whom she came to know — and who came to know her — during her eight years as first lady. She acknowledged that not everyone would be open to hearing her message, raising the issue of her race, gender and political affiliation. But she also seemed to be trying to reach out to some of those people by noting that she disliked politics herself.
“Now, I understand that my message won’t be heard by some people: We live in a nation that is deeply divided, and I am a Black woman speaking at the Democratic convention,” Mrs. Obama said. “But enough of you know me by now. You know that I tell you exactly what I’m feeling. You know I hate politics. But you also know that I care about this nation. You know how much I care about all of our children.”
Repeatedly returning to her concern for young Americans and the theme of empathy, Mrs. Obama warned that children are becoming disillusioned about the nation’s professed ideals and “wondering if we’ve been lying to them this whole time about who we are and what we truly value.”
“They see our leaders labeling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening torch-bearing white supremacists,” Mrs. Obama said. “They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown into cages, and pepper spray and rubber bullets are used on peaceful protesters for a photo op.”
She also struck an optimistic tone during her prime-time appearance, embracing a positive view of America’s future despite its recent setbacks, even as she has acknowledged a recent struggle with a form of mild depression in the midst of the pandemic and a period of unparalleled political polarization in the country.
“We still are a compassionate, resilient, decent people whose fortunes are bound up with one another,” she said.
The promise of America, she said, was the ability to work and overcome by those who wanted more for themselves and their children. “There’s a lot of beauty in that story. There’s a lot of pain too, and a lot of struggle and injustice and work left to do,” she said. “And who we choose as our president in this election will determine whether or not we honor that struggle.”
“I know Joe,” Mrs. Obama said. “He knows what it takes to rescue an economy, beat back a pandemic and lead our country. And he listens. He will tell the truth and trust science. He will make smart plans and manage a good team. And he will govern as someone who’s lived a life that the rest of us can recognize.”
Emphasizing Mr. Biden’s personal tragedies — the loss of his first wife and a daughter and, later, a son — Mrs. Obama said they had imbued Mr. Biden with a deep sense of empathy and kindness.
“Joe knows what it’s like to struggle, which is why he gives his personal phone number to kids overcoming a stutter of their own, “ she said. “Life is a testament to getting back up and he is going to channel the same grit and passion to pick us all up, to help us heal and guide us forward.”
Mrs. Obama, a lawyer, had spent much of her time in recent days working on the speech at her family’s home on Martha’s Vineyard, and had told friends that she viewed it as her major contribution to the 2020 race.
It was the fourth convention keynote speech for Mrs. Obama. She was chosen to anchor the first night of the Democratic convention for a reason — she has repeatedly polled as the country’s most admired woman.
Even so, she emphatically beat back suggestions from supporters this year that she should make herself available to be chosen for vice president, despite an organized effort to draft her as well as Mr. Biden’s assurance that he would “pick her in a heartbeat.”