WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama fought back tears on Friday during her last public remarks as first lady, overcome with emotion as she reflected on her eight years in the White House and delivered an intensely personal message of empowerment through education, one of her cherished causes.
“Being your first lady has been the greatest honor of my life,” Mrs. Obama told an audience of educators in the East Room, her voice catching as her eyes shone with tears. “And I hope I’ve made you proud.”
Her 21-minute speech, an appeal for hope and inclusiveness as the salves to the forces of fear and division, carried an implicit rebuke to President-elect Donald J. Trump, whom she did not name, delivered with the quiet intensity and aspirational language that came to mark her appearances on the campaign trail last year.
“Our glorious diversity — our diversities of faiths, and colors, and creeds — that is not a threat to who we are; it makes us who we are,” Mrs. Obama said.
“So to the young people here and the young people out there: Do not ever let anybody make you feel like you don’t matter or like you don’t have a place in our American story because you do, and you have a right to be exactly who you are,” she added.
The speech was a striking finale for Mrs. Obama, once a reluctant political spouse who disdained the partisan fray, but who evolved over eight years into a popular and high-profile first lady, spending the final months of her husband’s presidency as a uniquely powerful voice for Democrats against Mr. Trump’s candidacy.
On Friday, Mrs. Obama showed glimpses of her oft-expressed impatience to be finished with the fishbowl-like quality of life in the White House. “We’re almost at the end!” she exclaimed with a broad smile, but also the wistfulness of a person preparing to leave behind a role in which she had come to thrive.
The setting was a fitting one for Mrs. Obama’s valedictory, encapsulating the combination of “mom in chief” normalcy and celebrity star power that she has brought to her public initiatives, including the higher education project being celebrated Friday, the “Let’s Move” anti-obesity program and her “Joining Forces” effort to support military families. School counselors being honored for their work filled the East Room, but so did boldfaced names, including the actress Connie Britton, the pop star Usher and the comedian Jay Pharoah, who have lent their talents to promoting Mrs. Obama’s causes.
She alluded to the challenges inherent in the first lady role, which brings the highest degrees of public scrutiny but none of the built-in levers of power available to the rest of the White House. Her aides, Mrs. Obama said as she thanked them by name, “have worked miracles without any staff or budget to speak of — which is how we roll in the first lady’s office.”
Her voice began to thicken when Mrs. Obama, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and was in the first generation of her family to attend college, spoke of her father, part of a discourse on the power of hope to fuel opportunity.
“The hope of folks like my dad, who got up every day to do his job at the city water plant, the hope that one day his kids would go to college and have opportunities he never dreamed of,” Mrs. Obama said. “That’s the kind of hope that every single one of us — politicians, parents, preachers, all of us — need to be providing for our young people, because that is what moves this country forward every single day.”
The audience rose to applaud, and as Mrs. Obama struggled to keep her emotions in check, audience members and attendees who were assembled behind her for the speech wiped away their own tears.
“Lead by example with hope, never fear,” Mrs. Obama said. “And know that I will be with you, rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life.”