First lady Michelle Obama was on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” on Monday, and she spent a lot of time talking about the experience of visiting the London Olympics. Her operative word was “cool,” as in, the opening ceremonies were “actually really cool if you were there," the events she saw were “very cool,” and she was “cool with it” when a US female wrestler picked her up as if she were a training barbell.
We’re not making fun of the first lady here. She seemed genuinely excited by the whole thing, as befits someone who has made fighting childhood obesity one of her signature issues. While in London she hosted a kids’ play event on the US ambassador’s lawn, and Leno showed video of her schooling a Sponge Bob character at soccer, playing tug of war, and so forth. At one point Mrs. Obama disappeared under a parachute or tent-like thing with some children, and you could see in the tape that the Secret Service agents suddenly got very nervous. They jockeyed around other kids to try to keep their protectee in view.
“It’s always fun watching the Secret Service trying to manage a bunch of kids,” said the first lady. “That’s when their parent voices come out. 'Stop it! Stop pushing!' ”
Gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas was another Leno guest, and she (Gabby) made the mistake of admitting in front of Mrs. Obama that she’d downed a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich to celebrate her accomplishments.
Michelle leaned over toward the tiny Olympian and said, “Gabby, we don’t encourage that. I’m sure it was a whole-wheat McMuffin.”
The pair then dissolved into a fit of giggles.
“You’re setting me back, Gabby!” said Mrs. Obama.
“Sorry,” replied the gymnast.
Leno felt the sting of the first lady’s needle, as well. She showed a purported surveillance photo that zoomed in from space to show a grainy but recognizable long-chinned comedian emerging from a Dunkin’ Donuts.
“Let’s change the subject. Let’s talk about politics,” said Leno after the audience stopped laughing.
As to that subject, we’ll note that many conservatives aren’t fond of the first lady’s healthy eating campaign. It’s not broccoli per se that bugs them, but the fact that the government is in essence trying to tell them how to manage their personal lives.
That said, Mrs. Obama remains a potent quasi-campaigner, and that was on full display in her Leno appearance. She talked about her upbringing in Chicago, where her backyard swing set didn’t actually have a swing. (“You know, in the hood sometimes you don’t get a swing, sometimes you only get a bar,” she said.) Leno let her talk at length about her reaction to the US Supreme Court decision that largely upheld President Obama’s health-care reform law, with her noting that insurers will no longer be able to drop those with preexisting conditions, and so forth. She talked about her excitement at addressing the forthcoming Democratic National Convention, and so forth.
In a nonjournalistic setting such as the Leno show, all this occurs unanswered, with a genial host and no push-back from a GOP representative. The Obama campaign has pushed such appearances for both her and the president – remember his “slow jamming the news” on the Jimmy Fallon show? The Romney folks have done some of this as well, but not to the extent of their Democratic opponent.
On Leno's show, for instance, Mrs. Obama announced that she’s going to be the guest editor for the back-to-school edition of iVillage, an online site aimed at women. That will appear just as the political race enters its final sprint – and women have long been a particular target of the Obama campaign. Does that mean it’s campaigning? We’d argue that in a larger sense, it is. With an approval rating that hovers about nine percentage points above that of her husband, the first lady remains one of the Obama campaign's most important means of attempting to humanize a candidate who can appear too methodical and restrained to many voters.