Sharpton said that Obama “is a symbol — a black woman from Chicago — talking to people that see that they can succeed and rise above this kind of thug and violence. Second, her being the first lady gives the imprimatur that the national government is concerned.”
Polls show Obama’s image is far more durable than her husband’s. Sixty-three percent of registered voters said they had a favorable impression of her in a March national survey by McClatchy Newspapers and Marist College, while 48 percent rated the president positively. The biggest gap in likability is seen among Republicans: While only 12 percent see the president favorably, 36 percent see the first lady in a positive light.
Aides said Michelle Obama is still planning her second-term agenda and has not decided whether to develop a separate program on youth violence similar to her “Let’s Move!” anti-obesity initiative. But they said they do not see her focus on violence as a departure from her existing agenda, which one aide characterized as centered on youth opportunity, empowerment and potential.
Anita McBride, who served as former first lady Laura Bush’s chief of staff, said: “All first ladies are best when they work on something they are passionate about but that also supports the overarching goal of an administration.”
Obama’s focus on urban gun violence is in keeping with the agendas of a few past first ladies. Lady Bird Johnson campaigned to end segregation in the South, which boosted her husband’s civil-rights agenda. Jacqueline Kennedy gave uplifting speeches in selected Latin American countries that the president’s advisers feared might fall under the influence of the Soviet Union.
More recently, Hillary Rodham Clinton unsuccessfully led her husband’s administration’s drive for universal health care.
“Everybody thinks everything is politically motivated, but a lot of things first ladies do have to do with a calling they get,” said Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, a historian at Morgan State University. She noted Johnson’s push to end segregation, adding, “I think that’s what [Obama is] doing now.”
As Barbara Bush put it on C-SPAN’s “First Ladies” series, “The White House is a bully pulpit, and you ought to take advantage of it.”
Thompson reported from Washington. Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.
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