Michelle Obama: from lightning rod to mom-in-chief

As Michelle Obama chisels out a new model for the office of first lady, she has become a key campaign asset. She speaks Tuesday night at the Democratic convention.

By , Correspondent

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    First lady Michelle Obama waves from the podium during a sound check at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
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Before she became first lady, Michelle Obama was an easy lightning rod for conservative critics. 

She suggested during her husband’s 2008 campaign that she was proud of her country for the first time in her adult life, a remark that drew loud and lingering criticism. And she toyed with the idea of staying temporarily in Chicago after the election to allow her children to continue school and to provide some familial continuity – a big no-no for the cloistered Washington set awaiting her arrival. 

But once the family made the move to the capital, Mrs. Obama eased into a groove, carving out a safe but intriguing East Wing portfolio of causes, from fighting childhood obesity to advocating on behalf of military families. Often wearing designer duds, she has become an elegant fixture at state dinners, on magazine covers and late-night television shows, and in international appearances. Now, as her husband fights for a second term, she is leveraging her own solid approval ratings as a top campaign fundraiser and the chief cheerleader for his reelection. 

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“I’d put her on the stump against anybody,” says Myra Gutin, a professor of communication at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., and the author of "The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century.” “She’s done very well for Obama out on the hustings.” 

By placing a substantive but stylish imprint on the job, Obama has also shown herself to be a model of post-baby-boomer success, a highly educated career woman who has lived her life in chapters: Ivy League student, gritty young professional, wife, mother, and, with her husband’s ascent to the top job in government, public servant. It is her commitment to family, though, to daughters Malia and Sasha, that the campaign has happily touted as the president courts the crucial women’s vote this election cycle. 

Obama is, simply put, the embodiment of her husband’s pitch for another four years. Raised on the South Side of Chicago, she tells rapt audiences of the Democratic faithful of her story as the daughter of a city worker who saw education as the key to his children's advancement. 

“I share my story because my father's life is a testament to that basic American promise that no matter who you are or how you started out, if you work hard, in America, you can build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids,” she said during a summer campaign event in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., according to the press pool report. “And let me tell you, your president, my husband, he understands that promise because that’s his story, too. See, you want to know why I married him? That’s why.” 

For the past four years, the public has learned quite a bit about why President Obama married her, too. When Mrs. Obama addresses Democratic National Convention delegates – and the nation – in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday night, she’ll be reinforcing the central themes of their lives and reasserting her husband’s commitment to fighting for middle-class families. Just like hers, she’ll say. She will suggest that she has seen firsthand how his values and upbringing are reflected in the decisions he makes every day, from signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which expands workers' rights to sue for equal pay, to health-care reform.  

And she’ll make the case for a second Obama term with approval ratings that both the president and his GOP rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, would most certainly covet. Mr. Obama’s approval averages 49 percent for his entire presidency to date, according to Gallup. Meanwhile, the Republican nominee for president garners favorable reviews from 48 percent of Americans.  

A Gallup poll in May showed 66 percent have a favorable view of Mrs. Obama, compared with 43 percent near the height of the 2008 campaign.

“She’s extremely popular, the most popular person in Team Obama,” says Anita McBride, former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. 

Mom-in-chief

The first lady decided to throw open the doors to the White House to personally greet the public after moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The East Wing, which houses her office, is also the visitors entrance. 

“It was a symbolic start to this administration,” says Camille Johnston, the first lady's former White House communications director.

Obama is a hugger. She works a rope line like an old friend, observers say. That public approach – warm and neighborly – has colored much of her work in the White House. In 2010, Obama launched Let’s Move, an initiative to tackle childhood obesity by promoting healthy eating habits and exercise. The effort is built around several programs, including one boosted by corporate partnerships with Walmart, Walgreens, and Supervalu, which have pledged to expand stores in communities that lack access to healthy foods.  

“I have never seen major corporate concerns and big-time sports get behind a major initiative like this,” Ms. Gutin says.

Some of the president’s political opponents have suggested that the White House shouldn’t be in the business of telling parents what to feed their children. But the wholesome images of Mrs. Obama planting vegetables in the White House garden with local children help to offset such criticism – and earn public relations points for the administration. She looks more like the local Parent Teacher Association president than a stern policy scold, and so she has largely avoided the pitfall of becoming a polarizing political spouse, as former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton did during her battle for health-care reform. 

“Mrs. Obama was very clear that the work that we did should complement the president’s agenda,” Ms. Johnston says. “It was very clear that she was choosing things for which she had a personal passion and that the issues she was bringing to the table were things she either cared about as a working woman, working mom, as a professional or as an American.” 

Gutin puts it differently. “Whoever is advising her, they seem to keep a very sharp eye on trying to make sure that she doesn’t step into any major problems.” 

With Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, Obama has also championed Joining Forces, an effort to boost job prospects for and services to military veterans and their families. Again, corporations – Comcast, Microsoft, Safeway, Sears, and others – have answered the call, committing to hire or train 100,000 veterans or their spouses by the end of 2013. 

In a statement to the Monitor, Dr. Biden says she and the first lady have a “wonderful friendship and partnership.” And Biden, whose son served in Iraq, says she is especially grateful to Mrs. Obama for prioritizing the needs of America’s veterans. 

“Through our work on Joining Forces, the first lady and I have had the opportunity to visit and listen to so many of our troops, veterans, and military families,” she says. “And I’ve seen firsthand just how seriously she takes the concerns raised during those visits. Whether it’s a military spouse describing the challenges of professional licensing for her career or nurses and doctors trying to better understand the needs of returning wounded warriors, Michelle works tirelessly to make sure they are addressed.” 

But Obama is also a product of the corporate world, having worked as an associate at the law firm Sidley & Austin in Chicago and then as vice president of community and external affairs for the University of Chicago Medical Center. And so her office runs with efficiency and purpose, say those who know her. She thinks critically – and asks her staff to do the same – about the shape of her work product.  

Johnston says Obama holds herself to a high standard. “She is one of the smartest and most strategic people I’ve ever worked for,” she says. “She wanted to ensure that every time we went out the door we were putting out our best effort and our best work.... Everybody showed up prepared because they knew time was valuable. It felt very much like a professional work environment.” 

Turnover in her office has been high. In 3-1/2 years, Obama has seen exit two chiefs of staff (Jackie Norris and Susan Sher) and two social secretaries (Desiree Rogers and Julianna Smoot, who moved to the campaign). The director of her Let’s Move initiative left after less than a year on the job. She lost her press secretary, too. A Politico headline from May 2011 told this story: “Spotlight takes toll on first lady’s staff.”

Her evolution as a headliner 

The pressure to market a modern-day first spouse in a 24/7 media climate is tough – especially when the boss is as hard-charging and results-oriented as the first lady. But despite her initial reluctance to make the Washington move, the image-making enterprise endemic to success in this city seems to suit the telegenic Obama. She appears as at home on "The Late Show With David Letterman" – on which she appeared last week during the thick of the GOP’s convention in Tampa, Fla. – as she is as a guest blogger for iVillage, the online site targeted to woman and owned by NBC Universal.  

Since her husband took office, she has been featured on the covers of at least 22 magazines, from Ebony and Conde Nast Traveler to Time and People. Her television appearances total almost three dozen and include a range of forums: "Iron Chef America," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," "iCarly," "The Colbert Report," and more. Meanwhile, New York Magazine has dutifully kept track of her outfits in a "Michelle Obama Look Book," which includes photo captions the likes of which the first lady probably never imagined as she made her way through Harvard Law School: 

“Talking with Kobe Bryant after the men's basketball game between the United States and France at the Basketball Arena in London, England. Top, cardigan, and pants by Zero + Maria Cornejo.” 

For a younger generation of voters, Obama has ushered in a new era of the first lady as more than a celebrity, a fashion icon, and a mom. Her approval ratings indicate widespread affection among the American public. She also scores well with coveted swing voters; that May Gallup poll showed her approval at 90 percent among Democrats and 66 percent with independents. Almost 4 in 10 Republicans gave her a favorable rating. 

It’s obvious then why she is in hot demand on the campaign trail. She has headlined more than 90 events since May 2011, according to a composite provided by a spokeswoman. Many of these gatherings are in the heart of swing state country – Richmond, Va., and Palm Beach, Fla., St. Louis and Holderness, N.H. – locations her husband needs to carry in November to win a second term and places to which a campaign would never dispatch a controversial spouse.

Obama has courted supporters, donors especially, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and even Gwen Stefani’s Beverly Hills home off Mulholland Drive. At the No Doubt singer’s luxurious property in a gated community, tickets started at $2,500 for a family of four, with at least 400 expected to attend. All money raised went to the Obama Victory Fund.

"Barack can't do it alone. He's not Spider-Man. He's not a superhero. He's a human, so we need your help," Obama told an audience that included Stefani’s bandmates and other stars, like Nicole Richie and actor Jeffrey Tambor, according to a pool report. "I am not just talking to the adults here today. I am talking to the young people here as well. All of our young people – you might not be old enough to vote. You vote at school, I know – I met several young people who are going to be voting for my husband, who are 10 and under – we accept those votes. But you can play an important role in this election, too. I want you all to feel empowered." 

In Jackson, Wyo., in August, Obama’s arrival for an event at the Snow King Resort was splashed across the front page of the Jackson Hole Daily: “First lady woos 700 at King.” 

Attendees describe a crowd enthralled by the first lady. 

“She is an example of someone who made it from meager beginnings,” says Tom Frisbie, chairman of the Teton County Democratic Party. “It’s truly an American story I like to hear.” 

Marcia Kunstel, a Wyoming Democratic Central Committeewoman, says Obama did a great job explaining to the Jackson crowd why the issues for which her party and the president advocate are important. The first lady reinforces for anyone on the fence that the administration is doing its best to make the future bright for America’s young people, she adds. And she looks as if she’s having a good time doing it. 

“I think that in setting aside her own career she adapted herself to the role of first lady in a very compelling and professional way and made that position an important one,” Ms. Kunstel says. “She managed to give some substance to it without drawing criticism that she was trying to be the co-president.” 

Kunstel adds: “Any number of people I talked to as we were leaving said she’s the one who ought to be running for office. She really is quite appealing.”

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