First lady is fundraising juggernaut

First lady Michelle Obama has become a fundraising juggernaut for her husband.

A mid-September analysis by Bloomberg found that the first lady had raised at least $17.5 million for President Obama’s campaign since the start of the year, over the course of 56 fundraising events. She raised at least $5.1 million in August alone, the news organization noted.

The first lady’s capacity to function as a passionate advocate and as a heroine to the Democratic grass roots has long been clear. But her ability to raise large sums of hard cash has, by and large, attracted less notice.

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It was on display as recently as Tuesday, when she headlined a fundraising event in Seattle. According to the pool report of the event, guests paid between $500 and $10,000 to attend, while a photograph with the first lady cost supporters $5,000. The sell-out crowd numbered about 700 people.

If every one of those 700 purchased the lowest-possible-price ticket, and not a single official photograph was taken, the event would have netted $350,000. If everyone paid the maximum ticket price, the total take (excluding photo fees) would have been $7 million.

The sums involved represent “major money,” according to Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University and an expert on the role of first ladies.

Gutin noted that Michelle Obama’s involvement in this year’s campaign makes it obvious that she harbors none of the misgivings she exhibited throughout the early stages of her husband’s political career.

As President Obama took his early steps in politics — as a state legislator in Illinois and an unsuccessful challenger for the House seat of Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) in 2000 — his wife was often openly skeptical. In his second book, The Audacity of Hope, the future president wrote of his wife’s resentments of the length of time he had to spend away from the family home. “My wife’s anger toward me seemed barely contained,” Obama wrote.

At the outset of his presidential run, Michelle was also less than enthusiastic, fearing that the rigors of the campaign trail might have a negative effect upon family life in general, and the couple’s two daughters, Malia and Sasha, in particular.

But, alongside her ambivalence about the political process, the first lady has also long harbored a deeply competitive streak, as has been attested to by both her husband and her brother, Oregon State University men’s basketball coach Craig Robinson. Now, it seems that her will to win has finally banished any reticence.

“Are we going to just sit back and watch everything that we worked for and fought for just slip away?” she asked rhetorically of a group of supporters in Cincinnati during another campaign stop on Tuesday.

Her increasing immersion in the nuts and bolts of campaigning could, on the face of it, run the risk of eroding her personal popularity. During the 2008 campaign, she was a divisive figure, beloved by her husband’s supporters but regarded with distaste by conservatives. (The National Review on one occasion ran an unflattering photo of her on its cover with the headline “Mrs. Grievance.”)

Since her husband took office, however, she has focused on the uncontroversial issue of the welfare of military families — and an only slightly more contentious campaign to reduce childhood obesity.

Several experts said her involvement on the campaign trail for her husband was unlikely to wipe out the gains she has made over the past four years.

Another expert on first ladies, Professor Robert Watson of Lynn University, noted that Laura Bush raised money for her husband’s 2004 election bid and that there was a long tradition of first ladies campaigning on behalf of their spouses — one that reached back at least as far as President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor.

“First ladies have emerged as this very vital surrogate,” Watson said. “What Michelle Obama is doing is not without precedent.”

Another historian, Professor Katherine Jellison of Ohio University, noted that any diminution in Michelle Obama’s popularity would likely have been seen by now, if it were going to take place.

“I don’t think it will be eroded in the next month. I don’t think there’s enough time for that sort of erosion to occur,” she said.

Watson argued that the first lady’s continued popularity suggested the more positive shift in her image might be a permanent one.

“Michelle Obama has been very careful to not cross over that line which she trampled all over four years ago,” he said. “During the campaign she was dismissed as ‘Hillary the Sequel’ by conservatives, the anti-Laura Bush; she became the Black Panther.

“Today she is the first gardener, mom in chief. She is Oprah with better arms. She has emerged as this iconic figure.”

— Grace Mahan contributed to this story.