The Washington Post

Michelle Obama to speak on gun violence, which could mean a more activist role

White House officials say that the first lady will speak from the perspective of a mother, not as a gun-control booster. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

When she returns home here Wednesday to deliver a speech on gun violence, first lady Michelle Obama will be making a rare foray into the politics of the day that could presage a more activist role during her husband’s second term.

Obama is taking what aides described as an intentional step outside her narrow focus on military families and childhood nutrition to confront the dark reality of young people being gunned down on the streets of America’s cities. The remarks come amid a contentious debate on Capitol Hill over stricter gun laws advocated by President Obama.

White House officials say that the first lady will speak from the perspective of a mother, not as a gun-control booster. And unlike the president, aides said, she will not call on Congress to do anything.

But by speaking out now, Michelle Obama risks being seen as leveraging her widespread popularity to advance her husband’s legislative agenda. That would be an unusual move for any first lady, but particularly so for Obama, who has appeared careful to preserve her broad, nonpartisan appeal.

“The speech is deeply personal,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser and close friend of the Obamas. “She will really speak from the heart as a mom, as a Chicagoan and as somebody who cares intensely about providing young people with the opportunities that they need to achieve their full potential.”

Still, Obama’s visit here will be inseparable from the emotionally charged fight raging 700 miles away in Washington. “It’s not even subtle; it’s obviously connected to the gun legislation,” said Carl Anthony, an author and historian at the National First Ladies’ Library.

Obama will speak at a downtown fundraising luncheon for a new, $50-million public-private initiative to curb youth violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods. Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), a former White House chief of staff, will introduce her, and an estimated 800 business executives and civic leaders plan to attend.

“It’s probably one of the biggest tickets in town,” said Jim Reynolds Jr., chief executive of Loop Capital and co-chairman of the fundraising drive.

After her speech, Obama will visit with students and counselors at Harper High, one of Chicago’s most dangerous schools; last year, 29 current or recent Harper students were shot, eight of them fatally.

The first lady’s remarks will be substantive and personal, according to two White House aides who have seen excerpts. She plans to weave her personal narrative of growing up on Chicago’s South Side, building a career, meeting her husband and raising their two daughters in the city with her desire to see more opportunities for young people to follow her path.

Aides said Obama was motivated to take on the gun-violence issue publicly in February when she attended the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old majorette who was shot and killed at a Chicago park just days after traveling to Washington for President Obama’s second inauguration.

“The first lady, sitting in Hadiya’s funeral and seeing the grief and heartache in the community just a block away from where Hadiya was murdered and the first lady’s home, was devastated, but she was also determined to do something to prevent this from happening again,” Jarrett said. “She was determined to turn her grief into action.”

Phillip Jackson, director of Black Star Project, an education nonprofit for young minorities here, said, “We’re very happy that — finally — the White House is turning their attention to this.”

Michelle Obama’s visit sends a strong message to young blacks by making everyday urban violence just as important as the suburban mass shootings, such as the December massacre in Newtown, Conn., that the media spotlights, said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime activist who hosts a show on MSNBC.

Sharpton said that Obama “is a symbol — a black woman from Chicago — talking to people that see that they can succeed and rise above this kind of thug and violence. Second, her being the first lady gives the imprimatur that the national government is concerned.”

Polls show Obama’s image is far more durable than her husband’s. Sixty-three percent of registered voters said they had a favorable impression of her in a March national survey by McClatchy Newspapers and Marist College, while 48 percent rated the president positively. The biggest gap in likability is seen among Republicans: While only 12 percent see the president favorably, 36 percent see the first lady in a positive light.

Aides said Michelle Obama is still planning her second-term agenda and has not decided whether to develop a separate program on youth violence similar to her “Let’s Move!” anti-obesity initiative. But they said they do not see her focus on violence as a departure from her existing agenda, which one aide characterized as centered on youth opportunity, empowerment and potential.

Anita McBride, who served as former first lady Laura Bush’s chief of staff, said: “All first ladies are best when they work on something they are passionate about but that also supports the overarching goal of an administration.”

Obama’s focus on urban gun violence is in keeping with the agendas of a few past first ladies. Lady Bird Johnson campaigned to end segregation in the South, which boosted her husband’s civil-rights agenda. Jacqueline Kennedy gave uplifting speeches in selected Latin American countries that the president’s advisers feared might fall under the influence of the Soviet Union.

More recently, Hillary Rodham Clinton unsuccessfully led her husband’s administration’s drive for universal health care.

“Everybody thinks everything is politically motivated, but a lot of things first ladies do have to do with a calling they get,” said Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, a historian at Morgan State University. She noted Johnson’s push to end segregation, adding, “I think that’s what [Obama is] doing now.”

As Barbara Bush put it on C-SPAN’s “First Ladies” series, “The White House is a bully pulpit, and you ought to take advantage of it.”

Thompson reported from Washington. Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.
Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.

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