News Column

First Lady Already Playing Big Role in Obama's Re-election Bid

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First lady Michelle Obama was once a reluctant campaigner, but there are plenty of reasons why she's primed to play a major role in her husband's re-election bid.

She's more popular than the president. She's seasoned now. And she's so careful in her public remarks that even at campaign fundraisers, she sometimes relies on a teleprompter.

Observers said her top causes -- getting kids fit and embracing the nation's troops - were shrewd political choices, ones that have given her allies from coast to coast.

Experts say that a candidate's wife -- like the vice presidential pick -- is largely irrelevant when voters choose a president, but Michelle Obama is already playing a key part in Campaign 2012 as a fundraiser for Barack Obama.

On Sept. 20, she'll be guest of honor at a Manhattan lunch featuring feminist Gloria Steinem, Planned Parenthood leader Cecile Richards and EMILY's List president Stephanie Schriock. Tickets range from $500 to $35,800.

That night in New York, the president will join the first lady and mingle with donors at a gala dinner with a special performance by singer Alicia Keys. Tickets are going for $2,500 to $15,000.

The first lady averaged one fundraiser a week during an 11-week span ending in July, with events from New England to California.

The Obama campaign, which released details about her upcoming fundraisers, declined to say what her precise role in the re-election drive will be.

Some GOP officials argue that her work will be irrelevant to voters. "In the end, no matter how strong a surrogate is, it all comes down to the candidate's record and plan," said Sharon Day, co-chair of the Republican National Committee. "Unfortunately, even Mrs. Obama can't defend the horrible record this president has on getting the economy back on track, putting Americans back to work and ending the out-of-control spending."

But strategists such as Mary Matalin, who has worked for Republicans including President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, predicted that the 47-year-old first lady will be in the trenches: raising money, pumping up voter turnout, showering local media with interviews, reinforcing her husband's campaign themes and making a splash when Democrats hold their national convention a year from now in Charlotte, N.C.

"Mrs. Obama will be critical to shoring up the president's liberal base," Matalin said. "She speaks their language and connects with them, which they need to punch up turnout.

"She will be a solid reinforcer of the general message and evoke great coverage in all local markets. She is an articulate and eloquent presence. She is actually better than the president in some aspects."

The first lady has acknowledged her distaste for some aspects of the 2008 campaign, in which there were a few gaffes, notably when she said that for the first time in her adult life, she felt proud of her country -- a remark that led opponents to question her patriotism.

That was then. "My motto is: Do no harm," she told U.S. reporters during a June trip she took in Africa when asked about the upcoming campaign. When asked if she was the president's "secret weapon," she said no, but noted that when she will be out on the stump, "it'll be rigorous."

With audiences at fundraisers, she shares what's ahead.

"It's going to be long and it's going to be hard," she said in Park City, Utah in July, "because there's nothing easy about what Barack Obama is trying to do."

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith said Mrs. Obama is "tremendously valuable as a political asset" and compared her to Laura Bush, who likewise enjoyed higher public regard than Republican President George W. Bush.

Michelle Obama had a favorability rating of 70 percent -- higher than her husband's 54 percent -- in a national poll conducted for The Associated Press over five days ending Aug. 22.

The same poll had big red flags for the White House: Seventy-five percent of respondents said things in the country were headed in the wrong direction; only 21 percent said "the right direction." And only 46 percent approved of the way President Obama is handling his job.

In her speeches at fundraisers, the first lady steers clear of major controversies. At a July luncheon in Aspen, Colo., hosted there by Chicagoans Jim and Paula Crown, Michelle Obama avoided the then-burning issue of whether to raise the debt ceiling. According to a press pool report, attendee Laura Lauder was surprised by the omission, but added: "She doesn't want to be partisan, I suppose."

Still, the first lady's fundraising speeches tout her husband's achievements, from nurturing an economy "on the brink of collapse" to finding Osama bin Laden to nominating two women to the Supreme Court. She praises the president's intellect, work ethic and virtues as a husband and father.

"Are you in?" she asked supporters at the Aspen event. "Because I certainly am."

In June, she made four fundraising stops in California over two days, one at a garden party at the home of interior designer Michael S. Smith, who decorated the Obamas' private quarters in the White House and the Oval Office. On hand were celebrities including Drew Barrymore, Ryan Phillippe, Ellen DeGeneres and Portia DeRossi, Vanessa Williams and film producer Brian Grazer.

Smith announced the event had raised more than $1 million.

Such pals from the entertainment world -- and they include Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce and Stevie Wonder -- likely will help her in 2012.

Winfrey, in a statement to the Chicago Tribune, said: "I supported Barack Obama in 2008 because I believed then as I do now that he is the right man for the job. I wanted to share my enthusiasm for his candidacy in hopes that others would see what I saw in him. As for 2012, if the campaign needs me, I'm happy to be of service."

Katie McCormick Lelyveld, a Chicagoan who worked for Michelle Obama in the 2008 campaign and the White House, said the first lady connects with average people. "In 2008 in Iowa, we referred to her as 'the closer,'" Lelyveld said. "She could go into a room and really relate to people and share her perspective as the person who knew her husband best as a partner, a decision-maker, a husband and a father.

"I imagine her role will be very similar in the next go-around."

Since Eleanor Roosevelt's time, first ladies have become grown in stature as the role of women in society has evolved, he noted. In the end, some first ladies are assets; others are polarizing.

They have an impact, but not in the voting booth, said historian Smith and others.

"Just as people don't vote based on the vice president, they don't vote based on the spouse," Smith said. "Mrs. Obama is an asset, but I can't point to a state that will vote one way or another because of her."

The First Lady's Causes

Michelle Obama's two big issues -- child obesity and military families - are carefully chosen, appealing and noncontroversial.

Indeed, first ladies must pick their causes strategically, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Their issues must help the president but not make it appear the first lady is usurping his power and "as a result, exercising unelected power," Jamieson said.

A notable flop: Hillary Clinton's failure on a health care overhaul early in the Clinton presidency.

"When the first lady is perceived as a vulnerability, the consultants move her off the stage very quickly," added Jamieson, author of "The Obama Victory," a book on the '08 campaign.

Jamieson said that Michelle Obama's crusade against childhood obesity showed compassion and that her support for military families helped blunt the traditional argument that Democrats are weak on defense.

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, a scholar in residence at George Mason University, noted that support for military families has tended to be the purview of the Republican Party.

"I don't question for a moment Mrs. Obama's sincerity, but you can be shrewd and sincere at the same time," he said.

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