Obama campaign deploys weapon-in-chief Michelle

President Obama’s re-election team is capitalising on Michelle Obama’s popularity, sending her out on the campaign trail with a precisely calibrated strategy. Just don’t expect to hear her talk politics.


With US President Barack Obama’s approval ratings riding a roller coaster of peaks and troughs over the past few years, at least one thing has remained constant: the popularity of First Lady Michelle Obama.

Recent polls show that roughly 70% of Americans view the smiley, athletic-looking first lady favourably – the same number as when she moved into the White House in 2008.

Barack Obama’s campaign has been looking to capitalise on affection for his wife, wielding her as a not-so-secret weapon in the president’s tough re-election battle against Republican Mitt Romney. They’ve sent her to schmooze with donors at fancy fundraisers, rev up the crowds at rallies in key swing states, deliver pep talks to discouraged volunteers, and crack jokes on talk shows. The first lady even led a work-out session on hit reality TV series “The Biggest Loser”, and will soon appear as a judge on a widely watched cooking programme.

But one thing people should not expect to hear from her is any hard-hitting political talk.

Though she has been cited as a catalyst for several of the president’s positions (his endorsement of same-sex marriage, as well as healthcare and immigration reforms), Michelle Obama has carefully crafted a public image that remains untainted by her husband’s sometimes controversial agenda. She dispenses hugs, parenting advice, and tips about fashion and staying fit – but she doesn’t often discuss politics.

All discipline, ‘no risks’

According to Lex Paulson, a high-level 2008 Obama campaign organiser who worked with the first lady during the last election cycle, her “non-political” approach is key to her popularity. “Part of what makes Michelle Obama extremely useful is that when you see her in person, you think, ‘that’s someone’s mom’, not ‘that's someone trying to get my vote,’” he noted.

Some pundits and journalists who have studied the first lady closely say her avoidance of politics is a matter of discipline, rather than personality, for an Ivy League-educated woman who wrote an undergraduate thesis on issues of race and has been criticized for past comments (made before her husband was elected) viewed as overly critical of the US. “Michelle Obama is a passionate advocate and Harvard-trained lawyer, with lots of her own thoughts and feelings about what’s happened during her husband’s presidency,” said Jodi Kantor, the New York Times reporter who has covered the Obamas since 2007 and recently published a best-selling book about the first couple.

In her book, entitled “The Obamas”, Kantor describes the first lady as an opinionated figure who has clashed with some of her husband’s top advisors. “Yet on the campaign trail, she plays a very traditional first lady role,” Kantor said. “She’s on message all the time, takes no risks, and says pretty much the same thing in every appearance.”

It has been an effective strategy. “Michelle Obama is a huge asset,” Kantor explained. “The campaign sees her as a motivator. One of Obama’s chief problems is that his base is not as enthusiastic as in 2008, and she has a talent for motivating that base.”

An appeal to women and the working class

According to Anita McBride, former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush, that talent has been cultivated over time. Though she described Michelle Obama as “wildly popular and successful” in her role – particularly as a “prolific” fundraiser - she specified that the first lady’s initial steps into the spotlight were shaky. “Michelle Obama today is a far cry from 2008, when it was her first time on the national stage and she wasn’t as confident, well-managed or prepared,” said McBride, currently a professor specialising in the history of US first ladies at American University in Washington DC. “Now she’s had three years, so she’s found her footing.”

As assured as she may be in the public eye, Michelle Obama is a “reluctant campaigner”, according to Kantor; the first lady recently asserted in a TV interview, “I’m not interested in politics, never have been”. Still, Kantor emphasised, “She’s eager to do it this time, because it’s her husband’s last campaign and it’s going to be a close, difficult race.” Moreover, Kantor noted, “campaigning is really the only way for her to get back at the Republicans who have stymied her husband”.

For the first lady, recent campaigning has often consisted of public appearances at which she talks up issues that she – and not her husband – has been promoting. Luckily for the campaign, two of those issues, childhood obesity and the plight of military families, appeal to specific constituencies.

“Michelle’s focus on childhood obesity, and her role as a wife and mother, has earned her a lot of admiration among women,” Kantor said. “And her work with military families appeals to precisely the voters Obama has trouble with: working-class whites.”

Doing what her husband can’t

It remains uncertain how much of an impact Michelle Obama can have in securing votes for her husband. McBride cautions that while her contribution is “incredibly valuable”, Americans are ultimately “voting for a president, not a first lady”.

But the Obama campaign is counting on the first lady to do what the president, according to many analysts, has been unable to do: use her warmth and direct oratorical style to make an emotional argument for why he should be re-elected. At a recent rally in Philadelphia, she asked the audience to “get out there and remind people” of the president’s various accomplishments. “This journey is going to be long, it’s going to be hard, and there will be plenty of twists and turns,” the first lady told a crowd of over 1,000, before getting to the bottom line: “It all boils down to one simple question: will we continue the change we’ve begun and the progress we’ve made, or will we let everything we’ve fought for slip away?”

Political campaigns may not be her cup of tea, but these days, Michelle Obama appears deeply invested in the president’s re-election. As Kantor said, “She does not want to see her husband suffer a humiliating defeat that will raise questions about the original Obama project, and how tenable it was in the first place.”

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