First lady flexes muscles

 

First lady Michelle Obama is more aggressively wading into policy fights while expanding her portfolio.

Six years into the Obama administration, the first lady has gone to bat on issues outside her bailiwick in the East Wing.

It’s a shift from the first few years of the Obama presidency, when the first lady generally kept a safe distance from politics and sought to avoid the characterization that she was meddling too heavily in the West Wing.

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Most notably, earlier this month, she spoke out on the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls, first on Instagram and then in a weekly radio address, a messaging space typically reserved for her husband.

It was her first solo appearance on the address, and the photo of Obama on Instagram was quickly re-tweeted around the world, just as White House officials had hoped. 

She also made a rare foray into Capitol Hill politics earlier this week when House Republicans threatened to rollback the school lunch programs she fought hard to implement. The first lady promptly held a conference call to rally supporters against the spending bill that would allow schools to opt out of tougher nutrition standards in school meal programs.

While senior administration officials say the first lady is not expected to head to the Hill and meet with lawmakers to discuss the nutrition standards, she will be taking up the battle in her own way.

“You’ll see a sustained level of engagement,” one senior administration official said, adding that the White House will find creative and unique ways to push their strategy. “She’ll continue to bring this message to where the parents and kids are.”

On Tuesday, for example, Obama will participate in a discussion the school leaders and experts on school nutrition. As part of the talk, Obama will "stress the importance of students, parents, school officials, community leaders, and health advocates" to help "protect and advance" the progress that has been made in schools across the country, according to the White House. 

The senior administration official also said the first lady would be doubling-down to help Democrats in the mid-term elections.  After all, while her husband’s poll numbers drop and some Democrats would prefer that he not appear at campaign events, she is still in demand.

“She's popular because she plays to several different constituencies,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University. 

The first lady’s more public role in politics goes beyond Boko Haram and the fight over school lunches.

In December, she made the case for healthcare at a women’s leadership conference, at a time when President Obama was getting trounced by critics.

In February, she joined Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to announce new food standards.

And just last week, she also marked the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education landmark ruling in Topeka, KS by discussing race, an issue she said is “so sensitive…so complicated, so bound up with a painful history.”

In the coming months, Obama is expected to hold roundtables, attend fundraising events and campaign alongside Democrats in the upcoming election. While the details of her schedule are still being ironed out, senior administration officials say she is expected to campaign as much as she did in the 2010 midterms.

In the past, the first lady has seized on all platforms—cameos on kid- friendly television shows like iCarly and late-night appearances on Jimmy Fallon and spreads in glossy magazines —to push her initiatives.

And White House officials say that tack has been successful.

In an interview with The Hill, Sam Kass, the White House chef who serves as the executive director of Let’s Move!’ and senior policy adviser for nutrition policy, said the first lady is “deeply concerned about what she’s seeing” with regard to the proposed spending bill and wants to ensure that Republicans on the Hill aren’t “overruling” the work that’s been done for school meals.

“We know we should be listening to our experts,” on food issues,” Kass said, not politicians.

But Obama will continue to use “everything at her disposal” to keep pumping that message.

“We have so much more to do, such a long way to go,” Kass said. “Not only is it not time to roll back we need to double and triple our efforts.”

Jellison said Obama’s ever-expanding profile is indicative of the freedom of a second term.

“Now that her husband has been reelected and she doesn’t have to be so careful at playing the role of the dutiful wife, she can branch out a little more,” she said.  

And while those around the first lady’s orbit say she would never, ever seek political office a la Hillary Clinton, they can see her sticking around in some capacity.

“She has all the skill,” Jellison said. “If nothing else, I can still see her being a successful political player.”