WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. When the Clinton Foundation is dragging you low, you team up with America’s role model, Michelle Obama.
The popular first lady, who has emerged as Hillary Clinton’s most uplifting surrogate and a breakout star of the campaign, delivered to North Carolinian’s her signature rallying cry Thursday, reminding 11,000 cheering fans that “when they go low, you go high … and voting is our high.”
At her first and likely only joint event with the Democratic nominee here at Wake Forest University, Obama helped Clinton attract a rare arena-sized crowd. And she bluntly reminded supporters of the incredible and unlikely rise of the female duo on the dais two women, she said, successful because of a country that does not match Donald Trump’s vision of an America “grounded in hopelessness and despair.”
She noted that her own “great, great grandfather was a slave” and that Clinton was “the daughter of an orphan.”
Obama who stole the show at the Democratic National Convention last August and has been making sparing but high-impact appearances in key battleground states since has emerged as such a powerful campaign voice, in part because of her complicated history with the Clintons. She took longer to forgive after the bitter 2008 primary than her husband did, and acknowledged the well-known tension out of the gate on Thursday.
“People wonder yes, Hillary Clinton is my friend,” Obama said, vouching for the much more polarizing figure by calling her “my girl” and noting that “first ladies, we rock.”
Clinton could use a little dose of Michelle Obama’s sassy edge in the final days of her campaign. Clinton’s Brooklyn-based campaign operatives are eager to end the campaign on a high note, so that a potentially history-making election will feel like something more than a rejection of Trump.
Thursday showed how hard that will be. The campaign released a $500 million anti-bullying plan. But despite its best efforts, the most recent news cycles for Clinton have been dominated by unflattering revelations about the family’s charitable foundation and gossip about the divided factions in her orbit.
Those recent revelations have emerged from the hacked personal emails of campaign chairman John Podesta, which WikiLeaks has been posting online in batches every morning for the past 20 days.
In a memo released by WikiLeaks earlier this week, a former aide outlines the money-making aspect of Bill Clinton’s post-presidential life, calling it “Bill Clinton Inc.”
The memo raised questions about whether foundation donors were pressed to offer paid speeches to Bill Clinton, as well. The for-profit college system Laureate International Universities, for example, put the former president on its payroll after first becoming a donor to the foundation.
The Clinton campaign has also been dealing with fallout from the release of internal emails that reveal deep distrust among some of her top advisers.
Enter Obama and her rhetorical bear hug of Clinton. The first lady has a 64 percent approval rating, according to an August Gallup poll, and is scandal-free. Even Donald Trump has, for the most part, steered clear of directing his attacks at President Barack Obama’s better half.
On Thursday, Clinton appeared to bow down before her East Wing successor — acknowledging in a self-deprecating mode that when it comes to soaring rhetoric and purity of motive, the less political Obama is in a different class.
“Seriously,” said Clinton, “is there anyone more inspiring than Michelle Obama?”
Clinton said she sympathized with the pressures that come from serving as first lady but admitted: “Let’s be real. As our first African-American first lady, she’s faced pressures I never did. And she’s handled them with pure grace.”
She joked that “among the many real privileges I’ve had is to see the president and the first lady dance. Wow, one could only hope.”
In an election that has turned on the treatment of women, Clinton credited Obama with expressing moral outrage over Trump’s comments about women. “Dignity and respect for women and girls is also on the ballot in this election,” Clinton said. “And I want to thank our first lady for her eloquent, powerful defense of that basic value.”
It was a smart play for Clinton, who made it clear she did not plan to try to outshine the powerful orator.
“Saturday Night Live” has even mocked how much more beloved Michelle Obama has become than the more scripted, more cautious Democratic nominee whose best mode is steely and unflappable, rather than warm and maternal. The actor who plays Clinton, Kate McKinnon, joked that Clinton’s stilted “Trumped-up, trickle-down economics” debate line is on par with Michelle Obama’s “they go low, we go high” viral rallying cry.
“Just a couple of equally famous quotes from a couple of equally lovable women,” said McKinnon, in character as Clinton.
Obama, in the past, has been a reluctant campaigner. But she has continued to add more events to her schedule on behalf of Clinton.
“There are some folks out there commenting that it’s unprecedented for a sitting first lady to be so actively engaged in a presidential campaign,” Obama said. “That may be true. But what’s also true is that this is truly an unprecedented election. And that’s why I’m out here.”
Clinton’s campaign is eager for as much time as the first lady’s office will give it. “She appeals to every constituency Democrats need: younger voters, people of color, unmarried women, college-educated whites,” said Democratic strategist Paul Begala.
After their planes arrived on the tarmac here just minutes apart, Clinton and Obama entered a roaring arena at Wake Forest University. “MICHELLE FOR HILLARY,” read one homemade sign in the crowd. “When! You! Win!” a revved up group of fans cheered at Clinton when she noted that she would take care of the Obama vegetable garden “if” she won the election.
Clinton made clear that she knows that Obama can make her case to some voters better than she can. “You’re getting the idea that I think everything we care about is at stake in this election. Don’t just take it from me I think you’ve heard some really compelling voices saying the same thing. And one of them is here with us today.”