Michelle Obama embarks on a new campaign: help for military families

The first lady will dust off her campaign skills for an October swing through key states at a crucial time before the midterm elections. She'll be fundraising and promoting Democratic candidates.
By Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 9:38 PM

NEW YORK - It started in North Carolina in the spring of 2007, when Michelle Obama was simply the spouse of a presidential candidate running second in a crowded field of Democrats.

She had been connecting with voters around tables in Iowa and New Hampshire, but it was in the Rainbow Room near the Fort Bragg Army base where the future first lady began to hear powerful stories of struggle and strength. In a banquet hall where families sent soldiers off to war, Obama heard about long deployments, frequent moves and the challenge of piecing together a family life post-combat.

Making it to the White House remained a long shot, but it was there that part of Obama's platform as a first lady began to take root.

At a speech here Thursday, Michelle Obama began a more public push on issues of concern to military families, presenting them to what was, in many ways, an unlikely civilian audience. Introduced by her husband, she spoke at the annual Clinton Global Initiative, a gathering that brings together philanthropists, corporate chiefs, government officials and nonprofit leaders to find charitable solutions to worldwide problems.

The first lady asked the assembled leaders to consider "the challenges faced by America's veterans and military families . . . particularly as they transition to civilian life." She urged them to hire veterans, touting their unique skills by ticking off stories of veterans who are rebuilding in Haiti, retrofitting buildings to make them green or volunteering for the Toys for Tots program.

"Whatever you're looking for, whether it's technical expertise or management abilityâ?¦whether you're trying to lift a struggling community, or boost your bottom line . . . I'm asking you to reach out and engage our veterans and military spouses," she said. "I'm asking you to take advantage of their talent, their dedication, and their experience."

The recent end of the combat phase of the Iraq war means thousands of troops have returned home at a time of unusually high unemployment. Those numbers are expected to increase next year, when planned military withdrawals from Afghanistan begin.

With that in mind, while much of her public schedule has recently been dominated by her healthy living initiatives, privately Obama has been focusing on the concerns of military families and helping to frame those issues in the West Wing, White House aides said. She has hosted several small discussions with military families in the Old Family Dining Room in the White House, visited wounded soldiers and their families at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and called on the joint chief spouses.

"She is very committed and genuine in her care for military families," said Patricia Shinseki, whose husband, Eric, leads the Department of Veterans Affairs and has attended meetings with the first lady. "What I notice most is her desire to get the facts. It's a very strategic process, it's not just the superficial details."

White House aides said that the first lady's work with military families was very much in the president's mind when he decided on the budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs - he chose the highest of three options.

Introducing her Thursday, President Obama said, "At the end of each day, it is Michelle, her moral voice, her moral center that cuts through all the noise in Washington and reminds me of why I'm there in the first place."

Michelle Obama also took time to highlight her husband's commitment to veterans.

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