Michelle Obama's challenge: persuade voters not to fire her husband

Ann Romney had only to 'humanize' her husband in her GOP convention speech. As first lady, Michelle Obama has a much harder task, and heartwarming stories may not be enough.

Jae C. Hong/AP
First lady Michelle Obama waves as she appears at the podium for a camera test on the stage at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 3.

When it comes to spousal speeches, Michelle Obama unquestionably has the harder task.

At the Republican National Convention last week, Ann Romney’s main objective was to “humanize” her husband, most pundits agreed. Given that Mitt Romney’s low likability ratings are his biggest electoral hurdle, this was seen as a critical task, but not necessarily a difficult one. All Mrs. Romney really needed to do was give voters a warm and fuzzy glimpse of her husband’s character, telling them about his role as a spouse and father, the businessman who worked tirelessly to build a company, the good Samaritan who quietly helped countless others behind the scenes.

Some commentators griped that she could have done more, but her delivery was heartfelt and appealing, and the speech may have helped some feel better about Mr. Romney personally, and more drawn to the Romney family.

By contrast, Mrs. Obama has to persuade voters essentially not to fire her husband. She, too, may tell the public some heartwarming stories about the president – who, polls show, is far more widely liked on a personal level than Romney. But her primary task will be to defend his policies and sell his vision for the future. And that presents a tricky balancing act.

For one thing, current economic conditions make it hard to claim a record of success without sounding out of touch. Complicating things further is the fact that Americans tend to like their first ladies better when they stay away from politics and policy. Notably, Mrs. Obama was seen as a more polarizing figure during the 2008 campaign (when she made an unfortunate remark about being proud of her country for the first time in her adult life). But since entering the White House, she has been far more disciplined in her public remarks, while championing largely non-controversial issues like childhood obesity – and her popularity ratings have soared. 

According to The Associated Press, some of the accomplishments Mrs. Obama will specifically highlight in her speech include the equal-pay legislation the president signed into law known as the Lilly Ledbetter Act – as well as the landmark health-care law. Given the latter’s controversy, Mrs. Obama's challenge there will be to make the case for its benefits without seeming divisive or overly political.

Other first ladies have faced similar challenges. In 2004, Laura Bush said she wanted to “answer the question that I believe many people would ask me if we sat down for a cup of coffee or ran into each other at the store: You know him better than anyone, you've seen things no one else has seen, why do you think we should re-elect your husband as president?”

Mrs. Bush, whose 2004 convention speech was a departure from her typically non-political persona, went on to defend her husband’s signature education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, along with the Bush tax cuts, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and funding for stem cell research. Nor did she shy away from what was arguably the most controversial decision her husband made in office: invading Iraq.

“I remember an intense weekend at Camp David,” she recounted. “George and Prime Minister Tony Blair were discussing the threat from Saddam Hussein. And I remember sitting in the window of the White House, watching as my husband walked on the lawn below. I knew he was wrestling with these agonizing decisions that would have such profound consequence for so many lives and for the future of our world.”

It’s hard to know just how pivotal Mrs. Bush’s speech ultimately was. But President Bush got a bump in the polls coming out of the GOP convention – and from that point on, was able to sustain a lead (barely) all the way to Election Day.

If Mrs. Obama can offer a similarly sympathetic behind-the-scenes perspective on her husband’s most consequential (and controversial) decisions – without damaging her own popularity in the process – it could offer a critical boost.

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