It is unclear if first lady will comment on racial issues, but it wouldn’t be surprising
PHILADELPHIA—When first lady Michelle Obama introduced herself to a national audience in 2008, she made only passing references to race and gender at a convention that elevated the man who would become the first African-American president over the most-competitive female candidate in history.
Mrs. Obama on Monday will speak before Democratic convention delegates and a nation that are much different from eight years ago, with the shootings of black men and police officers driving the debate around race. And she will speak on behalf of Hillary Clinton, who lost the 2008 primary but is now set to become the party’s candidate for the presidency and with whom Mrs. Obama has differences that are as pronounced as some of their background similarities.
It is an environment tailor-made for Mrs. Obama to offer two of her signature traits—frank talk and an interest in bridging divides.
“One of the great attributes about the first lady that we’ve always known, even when we were back in college, is her ability to inspire and be honest, and her candor,” said Rep.Terri Sewell (D., Ala.), who was a year behind Mrs. Obama when both were students at Princeton University.
Her appearance comes a week afterMelania Trump addressed the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and lifted verbatim sections of Mrs. Obama’s 2008 address, sparking accusations of plagiarism that the campaign of GOP nominee Donald Trump took three days to acknowledge.
It is unclear if Mrs. Obama will comment on that controversy, but it wouldn’t be surprising, given her penchant for candor. As she has become accustomed to the spotlight during husband Barack Obama’s two terms as president, Mrs. Obama has also grown more comfortable discussing touchy subjects.
That is especially true on the topic of race. Though she wrote her senior thesis at Princeton on black integration into white society, it took time before she used speeches at venues such as Tuskegee University, a historically black college, last year to talk about the “sting of those daily slights” from “the folks who crossed the street for fear of their safety, the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores.”
Mrs. Obama will have to decide whether—and if so, how hard—to touch upon those themes in Philadelphia. She would be addressing a subject that energizes African-American voters who are important to Mrs. Clinton but which risks driving opposition from other groups, particularly working-class white males who have flocked to Mr. Trump.
One factor that favors her tackling the thorny subject of race next week is the apparent shift by the Democratic Party toward a more detailed discussion of racial issues.
Eight years ago, the party platform called simply for ending discrimination based on characteristics such as race. This year, Democrats have drafted a platform that makes race a key issue, calling for a “societal transformation to make it clear that black lives matter” and saying racial income and wealth gaps “are the result of policies that discriminate against people of color.”
Mrs. Obama could also nod to the subject of gender. Mrs. Clinton in her 2008 concession speech called capturing the White House the highest “glass ceiling” for women, but she also said that thanks to the number of primary voters who had backed her, the ceiling had “about 18 million cracks in it.”
Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Clinton aren’t close. “There is a reason why there were no couples’ dinners when Hillary was a frequent guest at the Obama White House as secretary of state,” wrote Kate Andersen Brower in her book “First Women.”
In 2007, Mrs. Obama had declined to say whether she would vote for Mrs. Clinton if Mr. Obama weren’t running in the race. During an Ohio campaign stop, the presumptive Democratic nominee mocked Mr. Obama’s aspirational messages, saying that if he was elected “the skies will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.”
But both women have a stake in each other’s success. Mrs. Obama knows Mrs. Clinton is the person best positioned to preserve her husband’s legacy. Mrs. Clinton is aware of Mrs. Obama’s popularity with constituents, particularly young voters, who at times have been hard for Mrs. Clinton to reach.
Mrs. Obama on Monday could also choose to accentuate her fun side. As first lady, Mrs. Obama has hula-hooped on the White House lawn and performed “mom dancing” with late-night television host Jimmy Fallon, demonstrating moves such as one the show labeled as “Where’s your father? (Get him back here!).”
Last week, she sang along with a recording of a Beyoncé song from the passenger seat of a car in a different late-night show’s segment called “Carpool Karaoke.”