Michelle Obama's Popularity Increases; First Lady Now Considered a Role Model

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

At first, they didn't like the way she was talking about her husband's dirty socks. Then, they said she always looked angry. Later, they questioned her patriotism when she commented that she only recently became proud of her country. They even made hay over her biceps when she dared show up sleeveless for her husband's address to Congress in January.

Now, two months into her husband's presidency, as Michelle Obama embarks on her maiden official overseas trip, the first lady is enjoying a second look from the American public -- particularly from those who were put off by her as a candidate's wife, but are warming to her as the president's wife.

A Washington Post-ABC News survey conducted over the past few days shows a dramatic turnaround: Her favorability ratings are at 76 percent, up 28 points since summer. The number of people who view her negatively has plummeted. Her most striking inroads have come among Republicans who viewed her negatively last year, perhaps in part because of comments she made about feeling proud of her country for the first time.

Selected poll respondents re-interviewed yesterday said their views were positively influenced by her focus on children and family, her devotion to her own family, and by the symbolic gesture of her planting the first White House vegetable garden since Eleanor Roosevelt.

Still, voters articulated complex feelings about her as they process the many facets of her life -- middle-class upbringing, Ivy League education, professional, wife, mother of two, African American woman.

Listen to Maxine Furlong, a Republican from Upstate New York who initially was not a fan:

"Eventually, she will be a great first lady," said Furlong, who's 34 and white. "She definitely has this black woman's attitude. . . . White girls have more insecurities, which is why they care more about being ingratiating. I'm not saying this is a bad thing -- I like that about her -- but she's just a very strong woman and that can come off as condescending." Accompanying her husband to the G20 summit in London, Michelle Obama will branch out on several solo stops overseas, not unlike her inner-city Washington excursions as first lady. In London, she'll visit a school for underprivileged girls, where students are encouraged to "dream without limits" and English is a second language for many.

She is increasingly referred to as a role model, and seems to be evolving into an iconic presence, like Princess Diana and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose every fashion choice and mannerism is imitated. The British media, in fact, have likened her to both women.

In interviews with The Post, voters who earlier this month responded to a Washington Post-ABC News survey about President Obama at first said they haven't been following her, and didn't know what she's been doing. But with a little prodding, they demonstrated that they knew quite a bit about her official activities. While most offered positive reviews of her performance, almost everyone commented that she had not yet adopted any one cause as her own, and recommended that she do so.

Republicans said she no longer looks as "angry" as she did during the campaign. Democrats who were inclined to like her, said she seemed happier and more relaxed. "My feeling is that she was ambivalent about him running and then got over it," said Democrat Nancy Thompson, a small business owner and freelance writer from Washington state.

Michelle Obama's visits to homeless shelters and soup kitchens have not gone unnoticed. This month, she dispatched an army of famous women throughout the city's troubled schools to inspire students. "I really like that she's out there trying to encourage kids to make something of themselves," said Bill Mazzilli, a Florida independent who voted for John McCain.

Said Randy Levensalor, an independent from Colorado who leans Republican, "I don't see the angry Michelle anymore."

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