By Peter Nicholas, Tribune Washington Bureau
August 17, 2010
Reporting from Washington
First Lady Michelle Obama will soon take her first real plunge into partisan politics since her husband won the presidency 21 months ago, making select appearances for Democratic candidates hoping that her popularity will excite crowds and donors in a bleak election season.
Her campaign schedule won’t be a heavy one, the White House said Monday. She makes public appearances about three days a week, and any campaigning she does for the midterm election will be within that time frame, a White House official said in an interview.
The first lady’s itinerary won’t be set until Labor Day, when the White House political team determines travel plans for the president and vice president, the official said. The idea is to deploy all three in ways that avoid overlap.
Michelle Obama will deliver a campaign speech that is largely upbeat. She won’t castigate individual Republicans, said the White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The first lady has enlisted Republicans in her anti-obesity campaign, so she would risk antagonizing hard-won allies were she to deliver a fiercely partisan message.
Instead, she’ll keep the focus on her husband’s legislative successes.
“This won’t be a red-meat partisan speech,” the official said. “That’s not her nature, and it wouldn’t necessarily be effective. Things like her Let’s Move campaign have been entirely bipartisan.”
Rather, the first lady will tell voters, “We have a lot on the agenda, and the person I’m standing next to here is an ally in that effort,” the official said.
Plenty of candidates want her to visit. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is trying to fend off a challenge from Republican Carly Fiorina, has asked the first lady to campaign in California and to headline a fundraising event. Another request has come from Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak, who makes no secret he would prefer a visit from the first lady than from her baggage-laden husband.
So far Michelle Obama has largely eschewed a partisan role in favor of apolitical causes such as mentoring, fitness and military families. The rebranding has paid off. Her favorable rating has risen 20 percentage points since the 2008 campaign, when she veered into trouble for asserting that for the first time as an adult, she was “proud of my country.”
Sending the first lady into the campaign scrum is an indication of just how worried the White House is about losing seats in the fall, when control of the House and possibly the Senate is up for grabs.
The White House “has a huge stake in the midterm election,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster. “It shows they’re willing to use all the political capital they can to defend” their majorities. “If this is a chess board, they’re putting their queen in play.”
When she starts to campaign, Obama will be riding a fresh wave of publicity from five women’s magazines that are part of the Meredith National Media Group. Collectively, the publications reach 60 million readers.
Representatives of the women’s magazines approached Obama’s office about highlighting her Let’s Move initiative and got an enthusiastic response. Promotional materials suggest a kind of partnership.
A news release put out by the media group said the five magazines had “joined forces with Michelle Obama” to help her put an end to childhood obesity. The magazines “will deliver the message” behind Obama’s Let’s Move effort, the release said.
“I don’t think there was any arm-twisting,” Parents magazine Editor in Chief Dana Points said of the first lady’s reaction to the pitch. “This is a campaign she’s really passionate about.”
On the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal, the first lady talks about her congenital dislike of beets. In Parents, she discusses healthful school lunches. Family Circle is sharing the White House recipe for turkey burgers, and a pair of Spanish-language magazines aimed at Latinas will showcase Obama’s anti-obesity campaign.
Deploying Obama as a campaign surrogate relies on one major assumption. The White House is hoping that the public sees her as a likable mother in chief – an image reinforced by her cover photo in the Ladies’ Home Journal September issue and the sympathetic coverage she is getting in the other four women’s magazines.
Democratic strategists also hope the public either forgets or forgives recent scenes of Obama vacationing in a Spanish resort town in designer outfits, surrounded by aides and security guards who traveled at government expense. (The White House said Obama would pay for her flight and other personal expenditures, as well as those of her daughter, Sasha.)
It’s not yet clear whether the trip tarnished her image. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll surveyed voters as Obama’s trip was underway and found that 50% had a positive view of her. That’s down 5 percentage points since January.
Dana Perino, a former press secretary to President George W. Bush, said she was surprised by the criticism the trip received from liberals, the Obama family’s base of support. Perino said she didn’t expect a prolonged backlash, though. “People have short memories,” she said.
There are no signs that after Obama’s trip to Spain, Democratic candidates see the first lady as a liability.
“She’s at the very top of people’s want list,” said one Democratic Senate strategist, who was not authorized to speak about the first lady’s plans.
That’s partly because Michelle Obama has spent the last year and a half pursuing a safe, easy-to-swallow agenda while her husband presides over a weak economy.
“She’s not the one carrying the water on the BP oil spill,” the strategist added.
“I haven’t seen any polling data on the first lady, but I expect her favorable ratings are very high,” said Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer’s campaign chief of staff. “More than that, our supporters have said, ‘Do whatever you can to get the first lady to come out here. We’d love to see her.’ “
To the degree that Obama injects a partisan message into her appearances, she risks undoing the progress made in building her image after the 2008 election.
“She’ll appear with candidates and talk about issues that most Americans are concerned with: the economy and jobs and healthcare and issues affecting the nation’s children. But she’ll do it in a way that is so vanilla, she just misses the mark of actually endorsing a candidate,” predicted Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women’s Forum, a center-right think tank.
Michelle Obama’s recent predecessors campaigned vigorously in midterm elections. In the 1998 campaign season, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a prized surrogate. With President Clinton damaged by the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, the first lady crisscrossed the country and was welcomed in districts where her husband might have expected a chilly reception.
Laura Bush kept up a brisk pace in the 2002 and ’06 campaigns. Her former chief of staff, Anita McBride, said Bush also recorded messages for “robo-calls” and “did everything that was asked of her.”
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