She’s not a political animal, Michelle Obama is the first to admit.
Yet with an e-mail here and a kind word there, the first lady has dipped her toes into the political waters of the midterm elections. And Democratic candidates are hoping there’s lots more to come this fall.
With her sky-high popularity — Mrs. Obama’s favorability numbers easily outdistance her husband’s — plenty of Democrats would love a sprinkle of the first lady’s stardust.
Already, she’s demonstrated an ability to be helpful even without making overtly political appeals.
Earlier this summer, the first lady promoted her “Let’s Move” campaign against child obesity at a series of events in Nevada, where she stood side by side with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is in a difficult re-election campaign.
While her trip was not officially a political outing, the first lady’s visit had to be good news for Reid, whom she called “one of my favorite people in the world.”
“Presidents can’t do anything if they don’t have a good team, and Senator Reid is part of that team,” Mrs. Obama said at one event.
Look no further than Pinkie Thompson, a Democratic activist who heard Mrs. Obama speak at a women’s forum in Reno, for a testimonial about what the first lady can do with a crowd.
“Her presence filled the room for me and I just thought she was a remarkable person in person,” Thompson says. “She’s really very in-the-moment, very present with those around her, and that’s a powerful ability. Everybody can’t do that.”
The question for the fall is how much the first lady will involve herself in overt politicking vs. seizing opportunities like her Nevada visit, in which she bolstered a candidate while promoting her own causes. She may be most effective when her own issues and politics naturally converge.
The first lady has competing factors to weigh: After taking August off, she’ll need to get her two daughters settled in school again. She’s also hit her stride in promoting the “Let’s Move” campaign and doesn’t want to lose momentum. Along the way, she’s cultivated an apolitical image that resonates with Americans and fits her own inclinations.
“Politics is important or else I wouldn’t be supporting my husband,” Mrs. Obama told reporters earlier this year, “but it’s not who I am and it’s never been a goal of mine. And being in it hasn’t changed that.”
On the other hand, the first lady’s popularity is a huge asset for Democrats, and she could attract big dollars for candidates if she makes fundraising appeals. Beyond that, in whatever forum she chooses to speak, she can be a powerful spokeswoman for Democrats.
Less than 100 days out from Election Day, the White House still is deciding Mrs. Obama’s place in the fall political picture.
“I expect to get some direction from the political team in the coming weeks about the larger strategy and from there we will be able to make some informed decisions about how she can be most helpful,” said Susan Sher, the first lady’s chief of staff.
In recent weeks, the first lady has sent two e-mails to the 13 million supporters of Organizing for America, the president’s political organization.
She’s done it while trying to stay at arms-length from the political realm.
“When you hear about the new health reform law these days, too much talk is focused on the political,” she wrote in one e-mail.
The first lady went on to highlight provisions in the new law that promote preventive care, speaking of the law’s benefits “for moms like me.”
In another e-mail blast to the same group, Mrs. Obama this week urged supporters to sign an online card for her husband’s 49th birthday on Aug. 4. There was no money pitch attached, but the signatures on the birthday card (complete with e-mail addresses) give Organizing for America a fresh snapshot of engaged supporters who can be rallied to the Democratic cause.
“While we can’t know what the coming year will bring, all of us, working together, will continue pushing forward for change,” Mrs. Obama says in the e-mail.
Mrs. Obama lone official political event this year was her May appearance at the Democratic National Committee’s “Women’s Leadership Forum,” where her talk was mostly about the things her husband was doing on the economy, health care, education and more, issues that she said “aren’t about politics.”
But she also revved up the party faithful, telling the women: “You cannot stop — because we all know that when you need something done, and you ask women to do it, it gets done. … And in the months leading up to this November and beyond, we’re going to need you to get out there and get it done.”
Recent first ladies have all stepped forward to help in the midterm elections.
In 2002, Laura Bush stumped for congressional candidates in bone-chilling cold and pronounced herself “emotionally vested” in their fates.
In 1994, Hillary Rodham Clinton served up one-two punches with her husband at a string of his-and-hers campaign events for Democratic candidates.
In 1990, Barbara Bush taped TV ads in Florida, debated Iraq policy on the stump in Nebraska and headlined a Hollywood fundraiser for a GOP candidate in California.
Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to Laura Bush, said it’s a balancing act for first ladies, who are “political partners whether they like it or not.”
In Mrs. Obama’s case, McBride said, she is a “fairly new first lady who is now just really getting in the groove of issues that she’s deeply engaged in and doesn’t want to confuse what her platform is.” The best approach, McBride said, may be to “look at where she can be helpful in the political scene but where it can further the policy initiatives that she’s engaged in.”
The first lady can draw comfort from a truth voiced during the 2002 midterms by Mrs. Bush, who was known to prefer reading to campaigning.
The great thing about campaigns, Mrs. Bush said, is that “there’s an end, always” — on Election Day.
Source: The Associated Press.