Michelle Obama in campaign mode

Michelle Obama is back on the stump.

Since the long and hard 2008 campaign, the first lady has largely concentrated on relatively non-controversial issues, most notably her “Let’s Move” anti-obesity initiative and a broader campaign to raise awareness of the plight of military families.

But with the election a year away, Obama is moving onto a campaign footing. And that holds both possibilities and perils for a woman who is simultaneously beloved by her husband’s core constituencies and a lightning rod for criticism from the right.

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The shift in Obama’s role became obvious just last week when she spoke at a campaign event in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Her speech still came wrapped in rhetoric that sought to bolster her persona as that of an American everywoman. But it also made a very direct case for her husband.

She hailed President Obama’s achievements on everything from healthcare reform to the ending of the war in Iraq to the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Of the latter, she emphasized that “for the first time in history, our daughters and our sons watched three women take their seat on our nation’s highest court.”

(The other female Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was appointed by President Clinton in 1993.)

But perhaps most notable of all was the first lady’s linkage of specific items of the president’s agenda to an overarching vision of the nation. For instance, she argued that the American Jobs Act was not merely about the specific provisions contained within it, but rather a reflection of the nation’s moral character.

“It’s about whether we as a country will honor that fundamental promise that we made generations ago, that when times are hard, we do not abandon our fellow citizens,” she said. “Instead, we remember that we’re all in this together, and we extend a helping hand. That’s who we are.”

It is the kind of comment that only cements Obama’s popularity with the Democratic grass roots — and deepens the distaste with which she is viewed by Republicans. And there is likely to be a whole lot more to come.

“The first lady is able to play a unique role as an ambassador for the president along the campaign trail,” Obama’s reelection campaign manager, Jim Messina, told The Hill. She is, he added, “someone who knows the president’s steadfast character intimately and watched up close as he confronted historic challenges by making tough choices on behalf of the American people. She was an enormous asset to the president traveling the country in 2008 and we expect that she’ll play just as critical a role in 2012.”

But even ostensibly neutral observers wonder if her appeal will be diminished as she adopts more partisan positions.

“She comes into the election with a reserve of good feeling. She is quite a bit more popular than the president,” said Dr. Myra Gutin, a professor of communications at Rider University and a specialist on the subject of first ladies. “But then it is much easier to be popular when you are not talking about the economy, or a war, or things like that.”

Conservatives, predictably, take an even more critical view.

Julie Gunlock, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Independent Women’s Forum, said that Obama would remain popular only “so long as she doesn’t go too far into criticizing the opponent — which I think she will. I think we’ve already seen it. Some of her most recent speeches have been a little more critical of the Republicans, and she is not afraid to jump into the issues.”

Her performance on the campaign trail in 2008 was deeply contentious.

In the early days of the battle with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), her effectiveness in sealing the deal with would-be supporters earned her the nickname “The Closer” from her husband’s staff.

But her most infamous moment came when she indicated that her husband’s candidacy, and its success, meant that “for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country.” The remark, which was seen by opponents as emblematic of a kind of absorption on behalf of herself, her husband and their supporters alike, has never quite been lived down.

More broadly, a perception on the part of conservatives that Obama was too keen to highlight the United States’ shortcomings began to dog her public image — reinforced by media coverage like an edition of the National Review that featured an unflattering cover photo of her beneath the headline “Mrs. Grievance.”

Her husband’s advisers sought, with some success, to leaven her image in the final months of the contest. The Democratic National Convention, at which a video titled “South Side Girl,” playing up her modest Chicago roots, preceded her notably soft-focus speech, was a key event in trying to turn the tide.

The dangers of Obama making similar gaffes could result in more caution this time around, conservatives suggest.

“I think they have realized that in order for her not to be a hindrance, they are going to have to be more cautious,” said Sabrina Schaeffer, a Republican strategist and a managing partner at Evolving Strategies, told The Hill.

But, added Schaeffer (also a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog), “I don’t think you can ever backpedal from a comment like that entirely. It leaves a very bitter taste in people’s mouths.”

Others feel the first lady has learned plenty of lessons — lessons that could go into making her an even more effective surrogate on the president’s behalf. As such, they suggest, her importance in the 2012 campaign could be even greater than it was four years ago.

“I think she really is an excellent campaigner, and it didn’t start out that way,” Gutin said. “At the start, she would have had to be classified as a reluctant campaigner. But I really think she has evolved.”