Her interviewers have largely cooperated in her effort to avoid politics — sticking to her signature issues of healthy eating and helping military families. She has deftly turned aside questions that could lead to controversy by choosing her venues carefully. When David Letterman asked in March whether the president ever comes home and says, “Oh, that John Boehner, what an idiot!” the first lady had a safe answer ready.
“It has never happened,” she said after a laugh. “Never, never. He is always upbeat, particularly about Congress.” This is at a time when Congress is hitting all-time lows in public opinion.
Joe “Black Eagle” Madison, a civil rights activist and radio show host, was promised a 10-minute interview with the first lady if he would fly to Florida to cover an event for her anti-childhood-obesity initiative earlier this year. He did not ask her about the economy or political stakes in the important swing state — those sorts of questions would be directed at the president, Madison said.
“We focused really on [the event] and also motherhood, her initiatives and what it is like having two daughters and trying to rear them in the White House,” Madison said. “We were told we had 10 minutes with her, and she gave us half an hour.”
David Axelrod, senior strategist for the campaign, said even when the first lady promotes her own issues, it benefits the campaign.
“Anytime she’s out there is helpful,” he said. “We want her out there as much as we can get her time.”
And she is out there. She has spoken at more than 50 fundraisers, raising many millions of dollars. She has held conference calls with campaign volunteers and groups including Women for Obama, Latinos for Obama and African Americans for Obama, and has begun telling supporters in swing states that the election could depend on them registering just one more voter in their home county. She has visited Obama campaign offices, including the Chicago headquarters, to rally staffers and volunteers. E-mails in her name flow into supporters’ inboxes.
Outside of the closed-door political fundraisers, Michelle Obama speaks expansively about motherhood and life in the White House, sharing with the editors of online women’s outlets that her daughters prefer to skip White House sleepovers, for instance. But she is more circumspect on questions of policy and politics and keeps close watch on her image.
Wisdom in avoiding debate
Critics warn of a downside but agree that there is wisdom in avoiding hot political debates. Such “aggressive exposure may dilute the power of her presence,” said Republican political consultant Mary Matalin, who was an adviser in the George W. Bush White House. “Mrs. Obama needs to be careful to avoid straying too deeply into policy advocacy or [being] too stridently political.”