Michelle Obama to the rescue as president's party struggles

Once caricatured as an "angry black woman", Michelle Obama is now much in demand on the campaign trail for embattled Democrats ahead of midterm elections. The first lady’s presence on the stump is an indication of how much her image has changed.


Toward the start of the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s inner circle was worried about Michelle Obama.

Tall, confident, and sometimes openly critical of America, the candidate’s wife was caricatured by some on the right as an “angry black woman”, and her husband’s advisors fretted that she would hamper his ability to attract white voters.

Things have changed: today, First Lady Michelle Obama is considered one of the Democratic party’s not-so-secret weapons. She enjoys healthier approval ratings than her husband, is studied for her style, admired for her Ivy League intellect, and known for wide smiles and warm hugs. Now, a few weeks before midterm elections in which her husband’s party is expected to suffer losses, embattled Democrats are hoping a little of the Michelle magic rubs off on them.

The White House is sending the first lady to defend various Democratic candidates around the country -- including some who have specifically requested Mrs., but not Mr., Obama. Questions linger about what she will say and, of course, what she will wear, but Michelle Obama’s eagerly anticipated return to the campaign trail is an indication of how much her image has changed over the past few years.

Back by popular demand

Though President Obama’s popularity has flagged severely in certain parts of the country, Democratic candidates have clamouredto get the first lady out on their behalf. The administration has therefore decided to dispatch Michelle Obama to host campaign events starting October 13 in Illinois, Wisconsin, Colorado, California, and Washington.

“Like most first ladies, Michelle is more popular than her husband,” explained Ari Melber, a political correspondent for The Nation, in an interview with “She can bring the luster of the White House to local campaigning, while leaving Washington politics behind”.

Indeed, Michelle Obama has been able to remain mostly above the partisan fray that has damaged the president by carefully crafting her White House agenda around uncontroversial initiatives: battling childhood obesity and advocacy for military families.

She has also disarmed some of the Republican establishment, reaching across the political aisle by appearing on prominent conservative Mike Huckabee’s talk show and headlining a 9/11 commemoration with former First Lady Laura Bush.

High-powered professional turned "Mummy-in-chief"

Michelle Obama was not always known for her warmth. During the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Harvard-graduated lawyer had a reputation for being sharp-tongued, even when talking about the man she was campaigning for. The New York Times’s columnist Maureen Dowd wrote: “I wince a bit when Michelle Obama chides her husband”. Obama was also slammed by right-wing commentators for remarks during her husband’s bid for his party’s nomination, when she declared, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country”, and also that America could be a “mean-spirited” place.

A turning point in the evolution of Michelle Obama’s image was her much-lauded speech at the Democratic convention, in which she spoke warmly about her husband and talked about her love of America. Since then, she has cultivated a softer, more nurturing persona, often discussing her role as “Mommy-in-chief” and focusing on charity work. At the same time, the first lady has been praised for putting her own modern, down-to-earth spin on traditional first lady duties, hosting a fitness session for local children on the White House lawn and visiting inner-city schools with famous women like singers Alicia Keys and Sheryl Crow.

But despite her popularity, Michelle Obama’s transition from a proudly opinionated, high-powered career woman (she left a top executive job at a Chicago hospital to move to the White House) to the largely ceremonial first lady role has occasionally been criticised. African-American political columnist Devona Walker wrote in one recent article that Obama is well-liked because she has “learned her ‘place’, taken it, and remained there”. Walker also quipped, scathingly, that “[Americans] were expecting a ghetto-fied Hillary and what they got was more like Laura Bush with a tan”, alluding to the famously demure former first lady.

It remains to be seen whether Michelle Obama’s return to the more openly combative political environment of the campaign trail this week will bring out the first lady’s fiery side. White House advisers have suggested that she will not attack Republicans, but rather will defend the Democratic agenda and urge voters to allow the party to continue working for change.


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