Michelle Obama’s campaign strategy: Steering clear of the hot issues

As the presidential campaign ramped up earlier this year, Michelle Obama presented poet Maya Angelou with an award and a hug at the BET Honors award show. Two days later, she danced on an episode of iCarly, a tweens sitcom.

In late January, the first lady began a tour of the late-night television circuit that culminated in mid-April with a visit to Stephen Colbert’s show to promote her work with military families. She has appeared on the talk show “Ellen” twice this year, doing push-ups and joking about her high school photo, and made a cameo on “The Biggest Loser.” She is on television almost as much as her husband.

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But as ubiquitous as the first lady has become, she also has carved out a distinct role in President Obama’s reelection campaign and in the country: innocuous cheerleader, steering clear of the tough, hot-button issues and carrying no hint of political liability that occasionally worried the campaign in 2008.

Despite a fierce national debate over policies affecting women, with the Obama campaign driving a conversation on issues such as abortion rights and renewing the Violence Against Women Act, Michelle Obama has been quiet on these divisive subjects.

A Harvard-educated lawyer and one-time executive at the University of Chicago Hospitals, she has largely sidestepped the pending Supreme Court decision on health care, instead focusing on the importance of seeing three women on the court’s bench and the benefits of the law to American families.

Although President Obama said he leaned heavily on his wife’s counsel before making his decision to endorse gay marriage, the first lady has left it to her husband to talk about the details in public.

In an era where it is not a stretch to anticipate a woman as president, how closely Michelle Obama hews to the traditional role of first lady is being watched closely for clues about how much and how little things have changed for high-profile political spouses.

History’s most popular first ladies have kept their own opinions out of public sight, but how much should Michelle Obama be compelled to follow that tradition?

Overwhelmingly popular

On Saturday, while President Obama hosted G-8 leaders at Camp David, Michelle Obama joined their spouses at the White House for a tour and lunch prepared with produce from the White House kitchen garden she helped plant.

According to a campaign aide, the first lady’s playbook for the rest of the election season will be to avoid policy and political debates on the campaign trail. After a rocky start to the 2008 campaign, when she was cast by Obama critics as overly opinionated and strident, Obama campaign aides helped remake her into a beloved, noncontroversial first lady with almost no political liabilities. She has not been at the center of a controversy since August 2010, when she was widely criticized for taking a vacation to Spain with her daughter Sasha.

She is overwhelmingly popular — seven out of 10 Americans have favorable views of her — and the campaign is determined to maintain that popularity by keeping her away from the ugly polarization of modern politics.

Instead, she will continue to fill the role of devoted spouse and mother — and pop-culture icon.

How the Obama White House went about building Michelle Obama into an influential cultural voice and powerful political asset, while avoiding the usual political traps, is a study in the myth-making powers of the modern political campaign.

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.”

The traditional niche of supportive spouse remains the safest place for Michelle Obama, agreed Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University who has studied first ladies. Public assertion of her political views — or emphasis on her Ivy League degrees and professional experience — could detract from her charm as a mom-in-chief and advocate for children and families.

“It pains me to say that, because I would like women to be able to go out on the campaign trail and just say, ‘This is what I believe,’ ” Jellison said.

Based on her campaign speeches, what the first lady believes in most are her husband, her family and the administration’s record.

“Let’s not forget how, for the first time in history, our daughters and our sons watched three women take their seats on our nation’s highest court,” she said at a recent fundraiser. “And we are now feeling the impact of those court decisions and what effect that will have on our children’s lives for decades to come — on their privacy and security, on whether they can speak freely, worship openly, and, yes, love whomever they choose.”

Her mission, Axlerod said, is to convey what President Obama’s “passions are for this job and for this country.”

To that end, Michelle Obama will carry a significant campaign portfolio targeting core Democratic constituencies and serve as a headliner at the party convention. The television appearances will continue with a spot on the Food Network’s “Restaurant Impossible” in June.

“Campaign aside, from the day they came into office they wanted to find a way to open the doors of the White House and reach out beyond the population that typically watches the White House press conference, and she’s played a huge role there,” said Jen Psaki, the former White House deputy communications director. “The more people see and get to know the first lady, the more they like her, and that is a huge benefit to the president.” And a fairly traditional role for any first lady.

Her Republican counterpart, Ann Romney, is doing the same thing for her husband, presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, softening his tough edges and making him a more likeable candidate.

But in political circles, the importance of a candidate’s spouse is a perennial debate. And some Republicans suggest that Michelle Obama’s impact is being overstated.

“Her popularity is not transferable,” said Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush. “There’s no history that says it is.”

Even if it can’t be transferred, Michelle Obama seems intent to take advantage of her popularity.

She’s the only first lady to have appeared on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens, the country’s largest women’s magazine, with 40 million readers. A few weeks ago, a category on “Jeopardy” was dedicated to her White House garden.

Gayle Butler, editor-in-chief of Better Homes and Gardens, said she was comfortable putting Michelle Obama on the cover lounging against a picnic table with a basket of fruits and veggies because “it was not a political story; it was a story about promoting healthy eating for kids.”

Now the first lady’s team is getting ready to push her next big thing: On May 29, she will release her first book — “American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.”

 
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