For Michelle Obama, a New Image but an Old Role

National Journal
First Lady Michelle Obama waves as she appears at the podium for a camera test on the stage at the Democratic National Convention inside Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday, Sept. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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When Michelle Obama spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, she was warily viewed as a woman proud of her country “for the first time” and caricatured by The New Yorker as an Afroed and armed rebel soldier.

Four years later, she’s now better known as the fashionista first lady who tells us to eat our vegetables.

While President Obama was steadily losing favor over the last four years, his wife was undergoing a successful public makeover. In keeping with tradition, the first lady has mostly steered clear of politics to focus on feel-good projects such as outreach to military families, organic gardening, and efforts to fight childhood obesity. Voters have seen her competing against talk-show hosts Ellen DeGeneres and Jimmy Fallon in friendly push-up contests and gracing a coffee-table book holding a basket overflowing with fresh produce.

But although Michelle Obama’s public image has changed, the goal of her convention speech on Tuesday isn’t much different than it was four years ago. Like Ann Romney did for her husband last week in Tampa, a spouse’s job is to bring out the candidate’s softer side. Nobody knows a husband better than his wife.

“She will help remind voters why they like Barack Obama as a person, and you can’t underestimate how valuable that is,” said Democratic political analyst Mary Anne Marsh. “That is the saving grace of this election, so it’s a big assignment for her.”

Michelle Obama could be particularly persuasive with undecided voters, who tend to be female, and she’s a more familiar figure than Ann Romney. “It will be very hard for Ann Romney to become as well-known and well-liked in what’s left of this campaign as Michelle Obama has over the last five years,” Marsh added.

A Gallup Poll in May found that 66 percent of Americans have a positive view of the first lady, unchanged from two years ago. Her appeal was slightly higher, at 72 percent, at the beginning of her husband’s administration.

During the 2008 campaign, her favorability rating never surpassed 54 percent. In her convention speech, she sought to reassure voters that she shared their patriotism by declaring, “I love this country.” She also tried to bring her husband’s image down to earth, describing how slowly the nervous new father drove when they brought their first daughter home from the hospital.

Voters can expect those kinds of personal touches on Tuesday, but it’s unclear how much they matter to voters who may be out of jobs and patience. Polls show that Americans already like Obama better than Romney but disapprove of his handling of the economy.

“She’ll talk about what a great husband and father he is, and there’s no disputing that, but there’s also no disputing that he’s a failed president,” said Republican consultant Alice Stewart. “The numbers don’t lie. This is not a popularity contest.”

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