The dilemma comes as campaign aides struggle to combat a dramatic drop in the president’s approval ratings, when Michelle Obama could be critical to bolstering his image as a trustworthy, sympathetic figure.
But the risk is a flashback to 2008 when Michelle Obama became, at times, a controversy, accused in one instance of being an “angry black woman” and, in a satirical political cartoon, depicted as a militant, Afro-wearing figure.
In the past three years, she has replaced that image with one of mom-in-chief and the protector of the Obama family brand. She was photographed in a ball cap and shades shopping at Target, and talked about how she sneaks out to Petco with the family dog.
And she has become a common presence in glossy magazines, with Vogue documenting her fashion choices and Better Homes & Gardens giving her a platform to describe her healthy eating initiative and her efforts to help military families.
So far, Obama is honing her campaign message before friendly crowds at party fundraisers in private residences and grand hotels. Next week, she will raise money in Texas and Louisiana and this week, she spoke at fundraisers in Detroit, Chicago and Tampa, telling audiences that she is ready for the campaign. “I’m in,” Obama said to applause. “I am so in.”
But Obama has also made clear that while the campaign will be a priority, she does not want to be drawn into partisan fights, nor does she intend to abandon the projects she has taken on as first lady.
“She will continue to speak from her own voice, and you will also see she hasn’t been interested in knocking other candidates down,” said Susan Sher, Obama’s friend and her former chief of staff. “She is genuinely … her husband’s biggest supporter so she will continue to speak from her heart about what she thinks he brings to the country .... I would be surprised if she was interested in anything that was a very specific policy issue.”
That strategy of playing it safe is intended to ensure that Obama is an asset to the campaign and that she is still able to advance her own agenda. Already, her campaign fundraising stops have been in cities where she is also holding events for her “Let’s Move!” and “Joining Forces” programs.
That combination is a way of smoothing her transition into campaign mode and protecting her popularity, said Lisa Burns, a communications professor at Quinnipiac University and author of “First Ladies and the Fourth Estate: Press Framing of Presidential Wives.”
“She knows that there are people really ready to pounce on her. She’s been through this,” Burns said. “She knows how ugly it can get and how personal it can get.”