CHARLOTTE—First Lady Michelle Obama never once mentioned Mitt Romney's name. But in her speech before the Democratic National Convention speech Tuesday night, she offered a dramatic contrast between her husband, Barack Obama, and his Republican opponent, insisting he understands the struggles of average Americans because he's lived through those tough times, too.
"Barack knows the American Dream because he's lived it, and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we're from, or what we look like, or who we love," Michelle Obama said. "He believes that when you've worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed."
It was a speech meant to bolster her husband's legislative accomplishments — and it did, as the first lady touted the president's push for health care reform, the auto industry bailout and efforts to keep down student loan interest rates.
But not unlike Ann Romney's speech on behalf of her husband at last week's Republican National Convention, Michelle Obama also sought to humanize the president, and to remind voters of the working class background she and her husband came from. With tears in her eyes, she spoke of her father, a pump operator at a Chicago water plant, and how her husband was raised by a single mother and by his grandparents.
[Slideshow: Democratic National Convention 2012]
"We learned about dignity and decency -- that how hard you work matters more than how much you make, that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself. We learned about honesty and integrity; that the truth matters; that you don't take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules, and success doesn't count unless you earn it fair and square," she said. "We learned about gratitude and humility; that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean, and we were taught to value everyone's contribution and treat everyone with respect."
Those are the values they are trying to pass on to their own children — and values that inform her husband's job as president, she said.
"After so many struggles and triumphs and moments that have tested my husband in ways I never could have imagined, I have seen firsthand that being president doesn't change who you are -- it reveals who you are," said Michelle Obama. "As president, you can get all kinds of advice from all kinds of people. But at the end of the day, when it comes time to make that decision, as president, all you have to guide you are your values, and your vision, and the life experiences that make you who you are."
Her husband, she said, "is thinking about folks like my dad and his grandmother" and is "thinking about the pride that comes from a hard day's work." It was a line meant to push back against Romney's claims that Obama doesn't understand how to create jobs because he's never worked in the private sector. But it also offered a subtle contrast between her husband and Romney, who came from a well-off background.
She spoke of the student loan debts they incurred as a young married couple: "We were so young, so in love, and so in debt," she said.
And she spoke of her husband's skills as a father — which she insisted have been unchanged even despite the pressures of the presidency.
"People ask me whether being in the White House has changed my husband, I can honestly say that when it comes to his character, and his convictions, and his heart, Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago," she said, her eyes wet with tears.
Pushing back against GOP charges that her husband is driven by politics, Obama insisted there is no "us and them" for the president, that "he doesn't care whether you're a Democrat, a Republican or none of the above."
She told voters her husband never lets himself "get distracted by the chatter and the noise." He just keeps "getting up and moving forward," she said.
"He reminds me that we are playing a long game here, and that change is hard, and change is slow, and it never happens all at once," she said. "Many of us stand here tonight because of their sacrifice, and longing, and steadfast love because time and again, they swallowed their fears and doubts and did what was hard."
That has been the story of the American dream, the first lady said. "That is what has made my story, and Barack's story, and so many other American stories possible."