Her husband’s White House is consumed with handling fallout from the scandal du jour – Benghazi, the IRS, the First Amendment – but Michelle Obama appears more than just untainted, proving anew her mettle on the campaign trail despite the brouhahas polarizing Washington.
Arguably the most popular surrogate for her husband’s 2012 reelection campaign, the first lady is stumping in key 2013 races. On Thursday she is raising money for Terry McAuliffe – the former Democratic National Committee chief running for Virginia governor – at a hotel fundraiser in vote-rich Fairfax County.
"Michelle Obama has been a leader on standing up for women, military families and children, and Terry McAuliffe is committed to continuing that work,” says McAuliffe campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin. “She is one of the most popular figures in America, and we're really excited to have her here in Virginia."
The Virginia race is an off-season election, but the contest is critical. The state – captured twice by President Obama – is purple, and it’s one Democrats hope to convert for the foreseeable future. A heated battle between Mr. McAuliffe and GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli is dominating the airwaves, and both candidates are trying to woo female voters and reach across the aisle to build a winning coalition to succeed Republican incumbent Bob McDonnell.
Paging Michelle Obama. (It’s worth noting that the president has yet to campaign for McAuliffe.)
“The first lady is traditionally a great draw for a big crowd, and she has little of the downside presented by her husband's controversies,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “People assume that the first lady isn't involved in Oval Office skullduggery, and usually this is the correct evaluation. Pat Nixon had no involvement with Watergate, and Hillary Clinton certainly wasn't aware of Monica Lewinsky's services to her husband.”
Meanwhile, last week, the first lady brought in an estimated $600,000 for Rep. Edward J. Markey (D), who is running for the US Senate in Massachusetts against Republican Gabriel Gomez. Obama has also appeared recently at the Democratic National Committee’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Leadership gala in New York City.
Her pitch at these events is that in backing these candidates or issues, voters are helping her husband’s cause. And Republicans – with a national leadership void – don’t really have an equally charismatic foil for her.
At 48 percent, President Obama’s approval rating has slipped below the 50 percent watermark, according to Gallup. By contrast, Gallup’s most recent polling of the public’s view of the first lady showed her with a 65 percent favorable rating.
Tracy Sefl, a Washington-based Democratic consultant, said the first lady “speaks with a combination of accessible language and emotion,” and “audiences find her magnetic.” And at campaign events, of course, she doesn’t have to delve into the weeds of congressional inquiries. The questions or interruptions that have sometimes intruded on the president’s public events don’t pop up when the first lady hits the trail.
“Her calendar is highly strategic, obviously,” Sefl adds. “Democrats recognize that her appearances on behalf of marquee candidates like Terry McAuliffe are all the more valuable during this lighter election cycle year. The spotlight she commands becomes even brighter. She's proven to be a teflon first lady.”
But could the recent appearances reflect something more than a savvy political use of the more popular Obama? In the waning months of her husband’s tenure, Hillary Clinton turned her attention to a US Senate bid in New York, so could this be an early sign of how formidable a candidate Michelle Obama might be?
Or has the Princeton and Harvard Law grad effectively tired of the Washington scene?
That storyline remains unwritten for now.
Professor Sabato, for his part, thinks the first lady – despite her proven campaign skills – will probably move onto other things.
“I'd be willing to bet Michelle Obama won't run for office,” he says. “While she's clearly enjoying the platform her current unofficial office brings, she wouldn't have chosen politics as the family profession. Hillary Clinton is the exception that proves the rule about first ladies. Unlike Hillary, the rest have been quite happy to move back into semi-private life once the White House tour of duty is over.”
Michelle Obama will appear Thursday for McAuliffe at the Sheraton in Tysons Corner. Tickets range from $100 to $750; several hundred supporters are expected.