IOWA CITY — It is the final week of her husband’s final presidential campaign, and Michelle Obama is feeling nostalgic.
“This is so full circle,” she said to the 800 supporters gathered in a Sheraton Hotel ballroom. “I mean, this is the state where it all started for us. . . . And I’m not going to cry right here — not in front of all those cameras.”
Here she was transformed, from the wife of “this guy from Chicago with the funny name,” as she recalled here, to first lady and arbiter of soft politics, a woman sublimely comfortable in front of all those cameras.
In the past year and a half, she has held 47 rallies and 92 fundraisers and has been featured on dozens of magazine covers and talk shows. After two rallies in Iowa on Monday, she took off again with plans to campaign Thursday in Florida, Friday in Virginia and Saturday in Ohio.
The conventional wisdom among political strategists is that candidates’ spouses don’t move voters, said Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush.
“My experience is that first ladies are always notable. They play an important role behind the scenes with the president, and they are often interesting people, but politically their influence is almost always overstated,” Fleischer said. “Her popularity is not transferable. There’s no history that says it is.”
But Michelle Obama, who is among the most popular figures in the Democratic Party, is trying to disprove the wisdom. She wants to move money and votes, and she often evokes emotion to do so.
This week when the campaigns had paused for Hurricane Sandy, the first lady sent an e-mail to supporters with the subject line “Barack is getting outraised.” “We can either give it our all in these final days, or wake up on November 7th wishing we had done a little more,” the message read.
As a fundraiser and campaigner, Michelle Obama “is very effective,” White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said in an interview.
“I saw the very clear impact that she had on the audiences,” said Jarrett, who traveled to Iowa with the first lady. “I watched her on the rope line and the exchange of conversation she had with individuals where she looked right into their eyes, and she’s so open and transparent.”
The campaign does not release individual fundraising totals for the president, vice president and first lady, but before Michelle Obama’s most recent fundraiser — a posh brunch at the home of actors Will and Jada Smith in San Diego — Will Smith said the first lady had set a new fundraising record.
“We made history y’all! The fundraiser that Jada and I are hosting for our First Lady is SOLD OUT — and we helped Mrs. Obama beat the fundraising record for a seated First Lady!” Smith posted on his Facebook page Oct. 22.
The campaign had no comment on Smith’s post, but the notion of Michelle Obama as premier fundraiser suggests the full circle she has traveled.
Whereas in late 2007 she confessed in an interview that her life would be better had her husband not decided to run for president, in 2012 she gives no hint there is anything she would rather be doing. In Iowa City, she called this campaign a “gift” and a “blessing.”
“When I campaign, I get to do one of my favorite things, and that’s to brag about the man that I have loved and admired for 23 years, since the day we met,” she said. “My husband, you know him. I get to say all these wonderful things — because after this campaign, we’re going to go back to normal where I tell him pick up his shoes and all that great stuff.”
“I’ve seen her get more confident. I’ve seen her get more knowledgable,” said Clara Oleson, 71, a longtime Obama campaign volunteer in Iowa who this week heard Michelle Obama speak for the ninth time.
As the first lady closed her rally in Iowa City, she had a set of instructions.
“Here in Iowa, voting, as you know, has already begun. In fact, right after this event, we’ve got a group that’s going to walk to the Iowa City Public Library to cast their votes,” she said before stopping to shake hands, look Iowans in the eye and ask for their support.
“There’s actual, tangible, real benefit of her going to an event,” said Jeremy Bird, the Obama campaign’s national field director. “She did an early-vote event for us in Chapel Hill, and from her event we scheduled 2,674 early vote shifts. . . . You can’t deny that that’s a huge benefit to a campaign that’s focused on the grass roots and believes that in a close race that’s going to be the difference.”
At the brunch at the Smiths’ home — where a seat cost $2,500, a photo $10,000 and entrance to the pre-meal meet-and-greet $40,000 — the first lady elicited laughs as she made an earnest, almost pleading appeal to her husband’s wealthy supporters to “keep writing those checks” until they reach the legal limit for campaign contributions.
“If you haven’t maxed out, max out!” she said to applause. “There’s still time. If you’ve got a friend that hasn’t maxed out, shake them. Find him. . . . Slap him in the back of the head. Take their wallet. Just make it happen.”
In Iowa, Nevada, Virginia and other swing states, she repeated the same message she has delivered throughout the campaign with increasing urgency, reintroducing her and her husband’s family stories — her father’s steady work at the city water plant and the glass ceiling the president’s grandmother hit at the bank where she worked — all while weaving in her belief in his administration.
She does not mention her husband’s challenger, Mitt Romney, by name, on rare occasions saying “the other side” or “our opponent,” but she lands attack lines nevertheless.
“Oh, and we absolutely believe that the truth matters,” she told the crowd in Iowa City this week. “You don’t game the system. You don’t play by your own set of rules. You don’t . . . ”
“Buy your way!” a man in the audience interrupted.
“I didn’t say that,” the first lady said with a smile. “And finally, we believe in keeping our priorities straight — because everyone in this country knows very well that cutting ‘Sesame Street’ isn’t the way to balance our budget. We know better than that.”
With the race on the line, she has described the waning days of the campaign as being “like the end of a hard workout.”
“You would do anything for that last five minutes,” she said. “That last run, that last minute. In my mind, it’s like we’re just on that last minute of that run.”