Democrats call on Michelle Obama to hit the campaign trail

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha had lunch with Spain's king and queen on Sunday at the royal family's holiday retreat on the resort island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean.
By Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The White House's efforts to hold on to a majority in Congress have expanded from the West Wing to the East Wing, where political operatives are calling on Michelle Obama to campaign for endangered Democrats.

Unlike her husband, the first lady has maintained her appeal to women, independents, and the new and young voters who helped propel her family into the White House. She has won praise for the issues she has chosen to champion, such as curbing childhood obesity. She has become something of a cultural and fashion icon, drawing a different kind of attention to the White House. And with an approval rating of 66 percent, she is easily the administration's most popular figure.

Yet sending the first lady onto the trail is not a risk-free strategy. Obama seems to have little margin for error, as her every move is dissected and scrutinized by fans and, especially, political foes. Her recent vacation to Spain with daughter Sasha, for instance, was criticized by many on the left and the right for being overly extravagant at a time of dire need for many Americans.

That level of attention will only increase in the run-up to the November elections, raising Democrats' fears that she could say or do something that critics will seize on and that will overtake the party's message. During her husband's run for president, Obama was harshly criticized for her remark that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm proud of my country," which garnered enormous attention and led some on the right to suggest that she is unpatriotic.

A return to campaigning will also be a test of Obama's popularity, as she puts her considerable and carefully crafted personal capital on the line. If she's seen as overly partisan, she could dampen support for her platform and perhaps erode the goodwill she'll need to boost her husband in 2012.

Nevertheless, senior White House aides have concluded that they have little choice but to deploy the first lady, and over the past several weeks they have begun to discuss having her campaign in close races, particularly involving female candidates, in an effort to increase campaign coffers and voter turnout.

Seen as 'a strong woman'

"Michelle Obama is the most popular figure out there right now, with a great profile as a strong woman who cares about her family, children and the country," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and strategist. "Her initiative on obesity is extremely positive with the voters, and even doing events on that initiative with candidates would be a huge asset."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has already asked the first lady to appear with her on the trail, as has Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), who is running for the Senate. In a July White House meeting with President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) requested Michelle Obama's help with fundraising. White House aides estimated that the first lady could bring in as much as $20 million.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who represents a district with a large minority population and plans to ask the first lady to campaign for him, said that she "appeals to people who might not want to be brought into a political event. This is about turnout, and the first lady could make a difference."

Despite her initial struggles, Obama was considered an immense asset by the end of the 2008 campaign, earning the nickname "the closer" for her ability to persuade undecided voters to back her husband.

In the nearly two years since, Obama has avoided partisan politics, undergoing a makeover that has transformed her into a pop-culture icon -- she has been on the cover of 12 magazines since moving into the White House.

Occasionally, she tiptoes into policy debates over such issues as health care, but mainly she sticks to her issues, including mentoring young women, advocating for military families and curbing childhood obesity, all while serving as mom in chief.

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