Michelle Obama, on the trail as mom-in-chief

By Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 10:19 AM

First lady Michelle Obama is switching to campaign mode for the next 2 1/2 weeks, delivering a 2,700-word stump speech (plus or minus a few ad libs) as she urges voters to punch their ballots for Democratic candidates across the country Nov. 2.

Her presence on the trail, a welcome one for struggling Democrats in need of money and a reenergized base, adds another layer to Obama's role as first lady - one she, like other first ladies, took to with some reluctance but then seemed to embrace.

In highly personal terms, Obama lays out the case for her husband's agenda, vouching for his policies and who he is as a person, and urges support for Democrats locked in tight races. She visited Milwaukee and Chicago on Wednesday; on Thursday she heads to Colorado for a fundraiser for Sen. Michael Bennet.

And while she is on the money trail to tout candidates and her party, telling audiences why the Obama agenda is important, her approach to campaigning tells us something about who she is and who she isn't.

Here's what we learn:

- She will never be Hillary Rodham Clinton: Michelle Obama and the Obama administration's secretary of state have two things in common: law degrees and husbands who won the presidency. It ends there.

For Clinton, politics was war, and she relished the combat. Her campaign tale of landing in Bosnia under a hail of bullets was an embellishment, but it was also a metaphor for how she saw herself: constantly under fire.

But for Obama, politics isn't an us-against-them contact sport. She has no red meat to throw to the base. In her 20-minute speech in Milwaukee, on her first campaign swing for the November elections, she never once said the word Republican or even alluded to the highly partisan and polarizing political climate. Hard to imagine Clinton, who coined the phrase "vast right-wing conspiracy," managing that.

Michelle Obama is a happy warrior, emphasis on happy.

- 2008 is 2010 is 2012: Much of Obama's stump speech could have been given two years ago. And, if history is any judge, it could form the basis of much of what she says in 2012 for her husband's reelection campaign.

More than her husband, whose public image is battered and bruised compared with what it was two years ago, Michelle Obama is the keeper of the 2008 flame, the protector of Barack the Brand.

In her Milwaukee speech, she referred to her husband as the president only twice; mostly, he was simply Barack, the former community organizer.

For all the disaffected liberals wondering what happened to Barack circa 2008, listen to Michelle, 2010.

- She wants to make an 'A': The cardinal rule for East Wing occupants is first, do no harm. Master that, and then become an active asset to the West Wing.

Obama has done so, maintaining an approval rating in the 60s since moving into the White House. In part, she got the usual first lady bump. But she's also avoided mistakes, sticking to a safe platform and shielding herself from criticism.

Wednesday's speech in Milwaukee was in some ways a rewriting of Obama's biggest gaffe from the 2008 campaign - it was in that city where she made the remark about being proud of her country for the first time in her adult life. She may have flunked that speech, becoming a temporary drag on her husband's quest for the White House, but out on the trail now, she's his biggest asset.

- She really is mom-in-chief: For everyone who thought Michelle Obama was underplaying her role and power when she declared before moving into the White House that she would be "mom-in-chief," her stump speech should make you think again.

In openly embracing this role, Obama manages to stake out some middle ground between retro and post-feminist. She harkens back to the original idea of first lady as "mother of our nation" but also upends the idea of what it means to be a successful, modern woman. On the trail, she declares that she comes at the nation's complex problems with a simple frame: as a mother of two daughters. She's a mama grizzly - without the growl.

- She wants to stay in her comfort zone: In the back and forth between the East and West wings about her role on the trail, the first lady pressed the president's aides to come up with a way she could be herself on the stump, talk about her platform and still maintain a reasonable schedule.

She has managed to do that, giving up only one weekend so far and limiting her planned travel to two to three days a week.

Party leaders may have wanted her to campaign more or to hit Republicans just a little, but she's hit her sweet spot.

Of her role, she's said before: "It's more comfortable for me to be Michelle than it is for me to be the first lady. And I think I am a better first lady when I'm Michelle than when I'm somebody else that is in a magazine. . . . I can continue to gain great joy in this work if I am fully me in it, because it's really hard to be somebody else all the time."

SEE PHOTOS: Of First lady Michelle Obama

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