Amid the din and rancor of an angry election, First Lady Michelle Obama managed to break through this week with a crisp message that will be particularly hard for political opponents to answer.
“A candidate for president of the United States has bragged about sexually assaulting women,” Mrs. Obama said Thursday. “Let's be very clear: Strong men, strong men -- men who are truly role models -- don't need to put down women to make themselves to feel powerful.”
The first lady never mentioned Donald Trump’s name. Even so, suggesting that Trump’s conduct means he can’t be counted among “strong men” tests the limits of her vow to “go high” when the other side goes low.
The speech, along her extensive campaign travel on behalf of Hillary Clinton, puts at risk the first lady’s public standing, which has delivered her approval ratings far beyond those who are typically associated with the daily grind of politics.
Yet Mrs. Obama managed to deliver her message in a way that not only resonated as a major campaign moment, but will also prove nearly impossible for Trump and his allies to answer.
Asked in a television interview Friday morning to respond to her, Trump’s running mate professed to not understand her critique fully enough to even have a rejoinder.
“I have a lot of respect for the first lady and the job she has done for the American people over the last seven and a half years. But I don't understand the basis of her claim,” Mike Pence said on CBS.
Obama managed to do something that few others -- not elder GOP statesmen, not gold-star families or prisoners of war, not federal judges, not even the pope himself -- have accomplished. She has, at least for now, managed to silence Trump and his campaign.
The reasons why get at what’s made the first lady a unique political voice in these divided times. She has cultivated image as her husband’s partner, yet somehow not dirtied by his political wars.
When the first lady spoke Thursday in New Hampshire, the campaign wasn’t about decades-old groping allegations, or hacked emails, or even the very real policy differences between the two major-party candidates that rarely surface in discussion anyway.
Michelle Obama framed her argument around the kind of leader the nation wants for the kind of country it strives to have. She made the case personal, speaking as a mom and a woman with “strong men” in her life, in a way that crosses party and gender lines.
“I can't stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn't have predicted,” Obama said, clearly referencing the allegations against Trump.
She lent her voice to a chorus of Democrats and even Republicans who are making the stand against Trump about something bigger than politics.
“This is not normal. This is not politics as usual,” she said. “This is disgraceful. It is intolerable.”