By Justin Sink - 04/17/12 09:00 AM EDT
Michelle Obama has become a more comfortable and willing surrogate for her husband this election cycle, using appearances on television programs to target voters who might not normally be engaged in the political process.
Leveraging her popularity on behalf of President Obama will be important in November, especially with Ann Romney having shown herself to be a powerful campaigner able to make headlines for her husband, Mitt Romney.
And while her efforts are ostensibly in support of her initiatives to reduce childhood obesity and help unemployed military veterans, there’s little doubt the first lady is using the series of unconventional appearances to pave inroads to independent voters.
It is a huge shift for Obama, who, four years ago, was visibly reluctant to engage in the rough-and-tumble world of presidential politics. But leveraging the first lady’s popularity is essential for the president’s efforts in November, especially with women representing a key swing demographic.
Michelle Obama’s importance became even more apparent last week, when the flap over Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen’s comments about stay-at-home moms gave Ann Romney the opportunity to demonstrate her political aptitude. A well-timed tweet and corresponding interview from Ann Romney elevated a problematic comment to a full-scale campaign moment and underscored the increasingly important role spouses will play in the 2012 election battle.
But Obama is walking a difficult tightrope, balancing between the powerful advocacy and fundraising force she needs to be with the public scrutiny that can inevitably follow.
“Mrs. Obama is clearly much more comfortable in the role, and even embracing it — this is the last campaign, there’s a real freedom that comes to that,” said Anita McBride, the former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. “But there’s always a risk when you’re in the public eye of saying something that someone isn’t going to like.”
That’s an especially difficult challenge for a spouse who must play a supportive — yet not overbearing — role in the campaign process.
“Americans are on the fence on exactly what they want from a first lady,” said Myra Gutin, a professor from Rider University who studies first ladies. Gutin says as first ladies have gained increasingly prominent roles, they’ve had to juggle sometimes-competing conceptions of their functions as surrogate and the more “ceremonial” presidential spouse.
Still, Obama seems to have solved that equation, choosing unconventional and lighthearted appearances that allow her to connect with voters without opening herself up to some of the stumbles that plagued the Obamas’ first run at the White House.
“She’s really stayed out of political media — she’s on TV so much, but you never see her on ‘Morning Joe,’ and I’d even be surprised if you see her on ‘Nightline’ and ‘60 Minutes,’ ” said Jodi Kantor, whose recent book, The Obamas, chronicled the first lady’s role in the nascent Obama administration. “She doesn’t really see a huge upside. By doing a show like ‘The Biggest Loser,’ she can reach an audience that isn’t necessarily paying attention to the political conversation and [take] on an alternative group of voters.”
The first lady’s decisions represent an evolution from earlier in her political career. In 2008, Obama famously made waves when she said that “for the first time … I’m really proud of my country,” a gaffe quickly pounced on by Republicans. And in Kantor’s book, released in January, the first lady is described as clashing with high-level administration staffers.
But since then, Michelle Obama has taken pains to project an image of accessibility and relatability — and avoid the political news cycle. The campaign has been largely successful, with around two-thirds of voters saying they had a favorable opinion of the first lady in a Marist poll released last week.
Her Joining Forces initiative, an increased emphasis in recent public appearances, endear the first lady to conservative voters who might otherwise be skeptical of her politics.
“Because of Joining Forces, she is pretty appealing to independent voters, to white women in the middle of the country,” Kantor said.
Obama has also refined her skills as a campaigner, better able to stay on message and project confidence and admiration in the president.
“The more someone does something, the more they get comfortable with it,” said Jen Psaki, a former White House aide. “You’ve seen her over the past couple of years become a very powerful voice for conveying what is important to her husband.”
During her appearance last week on the “Colbert Report,” Obama even joked that she might try lording her sky-high popularity over her husband.
The Obama reelection team says that as the campaign ramps up, the first lady will play a larger role on behalf of the president, with special attention paid to minority and female populations. She’s expected to do significant outreach with the type of voters who might not ordinarily engage in the political process and, therefore, make more alternative-media appearances.
“The first lady is able to play a unique role as an ambassador for the president,” said campaign manager Jim Messina in a statement to The Hill. “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.”
The campaign also recognizes that the first lady is a fundraising dynamo. According to a campaign official, she has four fundraisers this week alone, including an exclusive lunch where tickets start at $20,000 per plate.
“First ladies are the best fundraisers — they raise the most money, and that is critical,” McBride said.