First lady shielded by popularity

Michelle Obama took a lot of criticism during the 2008 presidential campaign, but Republican strategists agree that her high approval ratings probably place her off limits this time around.

“Michelle Obama’s untouchable at this point, politically,” Matt Mackowiak, GOP strategist and president of Potomac Strategy Group LLC, told The Hill.

“That’s not to say that the [GOP] base holds her in high esteem; I don’t think they do,” he added. “Activists see her negatively in some cases, but that’s not going to be a part of the campaign.”

Ford O’Connell, chairman and co-founder of CivicForumPAC and a GOP strategist, agreed.

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“Targeting her in a negative light is not good because I think it could fire up the base, and the question is, how does it play with independent women? Independent women don’t really like negative campaigning all that much,” O’Connell said.

The first lady weathered a storm of negative press during her husband’s initial run for the White House. While his likability soared, she was attacked from the right in ways she said sought to portray her as “an angry black woman.”

In 2008, Fox talk-show host Bill O’Reilly said Obama looked “like an angry woman.” Such swipes were not heard only from media pundits; Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) publicly described Michelle Obama as “uppity,” a word that historically has had racial overtones.

A 2008 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press poll found that more participants believed media coverage of Michelle Obama had been negative than positive during the campaign. The opposite was true of then-GOP candidate spouse Cindy McCain, whom study participants believe received greater positive media coverage.

But in the years since moving into the White House, Michelle Obama has seen her popularity rise. The first lady’s approval ratings have increased steadily since the 2008 campaign, when she did not top 54 percent.

According to a Gallup poll, her approval this May was steady at 66 percent, outshining her husband’s 52 percent rating. It’s that likability that prompts Republicans to avoid criticism between now and November.

“This is not a campaign of personalities, it’s a campaign of issues,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, partner at Singer Bonjean Strategies. “The strategy is to go after the president’s policies and not after the Obamas themselves because of the strong likability factor.”

“I think she should be off limits, and for strategic reasons essentially will be off limits,” Mackowiak said, adding that the GOP is instead focused on appealing to swing voters and independents. 

Republican nominee Mitt Romney and the GOP will also try to avoid attacks on women in the light of Democratic attacks on them for a putative “war on women,” he added.

“Republicans don’t need to be attacking any woman right now. They just don’t need to,” Mackowiak said.

According to O’Connell, courting female independents is a key factor in the Republican strategy to avoid going after the first lady.

He said Michelle Obama’s job in the campaign is to pry some independent female voters away from Romney “with respect to women’s health issues and the health of our children.”

O’Connell acknowledge that the first lady’s Let’s Move! campaign, aimed at decreasing childhood obesity, had made her a conservative target of late. But for the political right to venture much beyond that narrow topic would not be advisable, he said.

“Attacking her and painting a portrait of her outside of pushing for the nanny state at an even greater rate is I’m not sure going to be a very winning strategy for the GOP,” O’Connell said.

Even conservative super-PACs, known for trending negative in campaign ads, are predicted to play nice.

“I think most super-PACs wouldn’t go there either,” Bonjean said. “They know what the issues are, they know what Americans want, they know going after someone with a strong likability factor doesn’t really make sense.”

GOP experts conceded that it remains to be seen just how involved Michelle Obama would become in her husband’s campaign. The White House has just begun to ramp up her stumping schedule.

“Obviously, the one question mark is how much more engaged does she get in the campaign,” Mackowiak said. “I don’t think we’ve necessarily seen that yet in terms of her getting out on the campaign trail, doing open press events and fundraisers.

“I think she’s a real asset. I suspect they will deploy her in battleground states, particularly in smaller groups and perhaps in targeted races where they think she can make a difference, and in fundraising to some extent,” he said, though he added that the left would likely be “extraordinarily careful” how it deploys her, in an effort to limit opportunities to go off message.

If the first lady does make a misstep while on the campaign trail, all her popularity won’t save her from a conservative onslaught, GOP strategists said.

“It’s clear that a majority of Americans like her and they find her favorable, but that doesn’t mean that if she strays from the message, she can’t be criticized,” O’Connell said.

The first lady made such a gaffe before a small crowd of Hollywood elite in January when she said “remarkable progress” had been made on the economy during her husband’s administration, a claim many people challenge. 

“Obviously her mission right now is to stay on message and ride her star power … Right now it’s a smart strategy,” O’Connell said. “As long as she stays on message, I don’t think she’s going to hurt [President Obama]. The question is whether or not she’ll help him.”