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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 / September 4, 2012

First lady Michelle Obama waves from the podium during a sound check at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

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Washington

Before she became first lady, Michelle Obama was an easy lightning rod for conservative critics. 

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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. 

“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.

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