“This current crisis is a clear reminder of how critical it is to have competent leadership at all levels of government,” she said in a recent Zoom call with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, announcing the launch of the program, called Civic Cities. “Voting is bigger than any one party, any one issue, any one candidate, any one election,” she added. “The point is that no matter what party, what ideology, we want everyone to participate. We need your voices in this with us.”
While thanking the mayors for all the work they’ve done in the crisis, and asking them to tell their front-line workers “how grateful we are, me and Barack,” she emphasized that they were entering a new battle.
“This pandemic will likely have a significant impact on the November election and on how voters across the country cast their ballots,” said Obama, who did not turn on her video on the Zoom call, but used a photo of herself in a purple suit as her avatar. “Already in state and local elections, we’ve seen voters forced to choose between protecting their health and making their voices heard. And that’s absolutely not acceptable.” The big thing to keep an eye on, she said, was ensuring that the health and economic crisis of the pandemic “doesn’t turn into a crisis of democracy, too.”
Before this, former president Barack Obama finally stepped into the 2020 mix in mid-April, endorsing his former vice president, Joe Biden. Since then, he’s made critical remarks about the current administration in commencement addresses, referring to the “so-called grown-ups” who “only pretend to be in charge.” In a private phone call to supporters, he called the Trump administration’s coronavirus response “anemic and spotty.”
Although Michelle Obama has done other voter outreach initiatives this year, Civic Cities is the first effort that lands her squarely inside the election — although the former first lady’s aides insist she’s staying out of the political fray.
It also signals the kind of influence she’s hoping to have, not in stumping for particular candidates or hitting the trail but rather to engage in grass-roots activism with local leaders such as mayors, and particularly in urban areas.
The former first lady has made it clear that voting rights will be one of her chief passions of the post-presidency, not just by founding this voting initiative but also in an emotional moment in the “Becoming” documentary about her book tour, released on Netflix on May 6. Almost half of eligible voters didn’t go to the polls in the 2016 election, and a group of political scientists and data analysts found that 4.4 million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 stayed home in 2016, including 11 percent of black voters who cast ballots for Obama in 2012 — constituting one-third of abstainers.
The day her family left the White House and handed over the reins by sitting onstage at Trump’s inauguration she described in the documentary as “painful,” particularly because “a lot of our folks didn’t vote, so it was almost like a slap in the face.”
“I understand the people who voted for Trump,” she said in the documentary. “The people who didn’t vote at all, the young people, the women, that’s when you think, ‘Man, people think this is a game.’ ”
She went on: “It wasn’t just in this election, but every midterm, every time Barack didn’t get the Congress he needed, that was because our folks didn’t show up. After all that work, they couldn’t be bothered to vote at all. That’s my trauma.”
It bothered her because “she had hoped that what [her husband] had begun was a movement, and movements continue,” said Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend and adviser to the Obamas. “That was a low water mark, and I think it did prompt her to say, ‘Why is it that people only vote if there is a candidate that inspires them?’ ”
The philosophy of the voting initiative, said Jarrett, who chairs its board, is to encourage voting no matter what for the best candidate on the ticket, “and then work to try to make sure that person can be as good as they can possibly be.” In other words, get someone acceptable in office and then hold them accountable.
The goal of When We All Vote and Civic Cities is not just to increase voter registration but “to change the culture in our country around voting,” Jarrett said. “It’s a travesty that so many Americans opt out of the basic responsibility of citizenship.”
Although Jarrett emphasized that the mayors involved in Civic Cities come from both cities and small towns, the program’s name suggests its emphasis and it is no secret that most cities are Democratic strongholds.
Obama’s partners in the program are mostly Democrats, including Los Angeles’s Eric Garcetti, Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot, Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, and D.C.’s Muriel E. Bowser, but there are also three Republicans and two independents in the mix.
On the Zoom call, mayors tossed around ideas like placing dropboxes for mail-in ballots all over their cities so fewer people had to wait in line at polling places. Or making voter registration automatic, with an option to opt out, when getting the new enhanced driver’s licenses, which Tacoma, Wash., Mayor Victoria Woodards said she’d already instated.
Obama promised them, “we are committing to supporting your efforts in the years to come.” But she also stressed that they had a lot to do, and fast: “We’ve got to get to work because we don’t have much time.”
John Giles, the Republican mayor of Mesa, Ariz., who is part of Civic Cities, said his big goal this cycle is to target registration of Hispanic voters, who make up a third of his city, and young voters. He’s looking for ideas from fellow mayors.
“I have a great deal of respect for Mrs. Obama, but she was not the motivating force for my getting involved,” he said. “The cause is really the compelling reason to get involved.”
Bowser has had a working relationship with the Obamas since they were in office, and it’s one that’s continued as they became the rare first couple to stay in Washington after their time at the White House was done. Bowser is working on encouraging voters to request mail-in ballots but said that she got her closest look at Michelle Obama’s influence recently when the former first lady volunteered to help get out the word about safety from the coronavirus by recording a robocall with testing information for D.C. residents.
“Immediately after that call, we had three times the number of calls into our call center for testing. So people really felt it,” Bowser said.
A similar effort centered on voting might have a similar effect. “She has a very powerful voice,” Bowser said. “And she can put how important it is to vote into a historical and political context that is unique to her.” She added: “Some people think she should be on the ticket. I’m one of those people.”
When he was asked earlier this year whether he’d ask Michelle Obama to be his vice president, Biden said he’d choose her in a “heartbeat,” but, “I don’t think she has any desire to live in the White House again.”
Jarrett emphatically agreed that Obama will not be running for office. “Absolutely not. 100 percent no.”
When they met in the summer of 1991, Jarrett said, Obama was still practicing law “and what was clear to me then is that she has a deep passion for public service. And what became clearer to me later is that does not include politics. She loves the service, not the politics.”
Civic engagement like these voting initiatives “and being a force for good is her life’s work,” said Jarrett, and one that will continue long-term. “But she will not run for political office. Of that I am confident.”