Democrats call on Michelle Obama to hit the campaign trail

By Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010; A03

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.

East Wing aides said Obama very much wants to stay in her comfort zone on the trail, which means she will probably tout her own initiatives as well as those of the administration. A test run for this approach came in May, when Obama headlined a Democratic National Committee event and talked about the administration's achievements -- rescuing the "financial system from the brink of collapse," passing health-care reform and implementing educational initiatives.

She said that such issues "aren't about politics. They're personal. And they're personal for every single one of us in this room, and they're personal for every single one of us in this country."

The event raised $1 million.

So far, the closest Obama has come to stumping for a candidate is a June appearance with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), when she launched the outdoor component of her "Let's Move" initiative. East Wing aides said the appearance was an "official event," yet it had all the markings of a campaign rally, with Rep. Dina Tutus (D-Nev.), who along with Reid is headed for a tough reelection fight, on stage and the first lady heaping praise on both her and Reid.

Laura Bush's precedent

The White House is hoping that Michelle can do for Barack what Laura did for George and the GOP four years ago. In that midterm election, Laura Bush attended more than 70 events at a time when her approval rating was about twice as high as her husband's dismal 40 percent.

"She was relentless and was out on the trail, and she did everything they asked for and more," said Anita McBride, Laura Bush's former chief of staff. "But this is not the most desirable part of the job, and there is always tension between the East and West Wing because they are politicians and they are going to come up with the most aggressive schedule possible, and the East Wing is going to want to evaluate that and be assured that they are not misusing her or overusing her."

Sestak said the White House has been "very receptive" to his request to have the first lady campaign with him. Aides initially offered the president, but Sestak said the first lady was his first choice.

"It is a 'women's nation,' as more women are employed than men for the first time in America," he said. "Michelle helps highlight the changes we must make to better support the new American working family."

Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D), up for reelection in Ohio, invited the first lady to her district, too.

"She has a broad appeal and is sort of a no-nonsense speaker and very clear and direct, and I think her compassion and intelligence and values, all really comes through," Kilroy said. "The president has a different role, commander in chief, and Mrs. Obama can probably be more relaxed and more outgoing and warm."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company