[Steering clear of political combat, she uses pop culture and entertainment media to her own and her husband’s advantage]
WASHINGTON — Four years ago, the Obama campaign was strategizing about how to present Michelle Obama to the country with her prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention. Today, the A-lister needs no introduction.
If you missed her on David Letterman last week, you can catch her on television soon with Rachael Ray and Dr. Oz. If you have kids, you know her from the Nickelodeon channel — iCarly, anyone? If you’re a reality TV fan, you caught her doing squats on “The Biggest Loser” or judging contestants on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” If you cook, you saw her on Epicurious.com.
She blogs. She tweets. She posts recipes on Pinterest.
Each president’s wife is given the challenge and luxury of making a name for herself in an undefined, unelected position. It took Michelle Obama little time to settle into her role: first celebrity. Her life is not an open book, though. She picks and chooses among interviewers in risk-averse settings and steers clear of Washington’s hand-to-hand political combat.
While Barack Obama was knocked by opponents for soaring to star status in 2008, it’s Michelle Obama who has embraced pop culture and entertainment media, using it to her own and her husband’s advantage.
She just finished a stint as a guest editor on iVillage, a website for women, whose votes could tilt the election. Obama confessed her weakness (potato chips), explained why the president quit smoking (their daughters) and ventured an opinion on why the erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” caught fire with women (she hasn’t read it, she said, but members of her staff have).
“She’s the first fashionista, the mom in chief, the first gardener, the cool aunt — she’s Oprah with good arms,” said Robert Watson, an expert in first ladies at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. “I don’t know if it’s rebranding or we’re finally getting the real Michelle. Whatever it is, it’s very effective.”
A Gallup poll taken in May found 66% of those asked had a favorable opinion of Michelle Obama. That’s down from 72% early in the Obama presidency, but far higher than the 43% in June 2008, before the last Democratic convention, when Obama was in need of an image recovery. (Critics had cast her as an angry and radical woman, fueled in part by when referring to her husband’s campaign she said, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.”)
The 48-year-old, Harvard-educated lawyer is hardly pure pop, though. In each breezy chat on the couch, she evangelizes about her causes: getting kids fit, gardening and supporting military families. Her work has been dogged and strategic, with some heralding her anti-obesity initiative, “Let’s Move,” as one of the most successful crusades by a recent first lady.
Once a reluctant trail warrior, the first lady has emerged a campaign powerhouse. She has hit 77 fundraisers, an average of five a month, since May 2011, and in recent months knocked off 24 political rallies in battleground states. Her events draw crowds of thousands. Her stump speech is a politically shrewd testimony to the middle-class roots she shares with her husband, drawing a clear, though unspoken, contrast with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“I’ve been able to see up close and personal what being president really looks like, you know?” Michelle Obama said at a rally last month in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “But let me tell you something — at the end of the day, when it comes time to make that decision, as president, truly, all you have to guide you are your life experiences. You understand me?”
A day later in Milwaukee, she told a delirious crowd that the president had the backs of American workers. People who work hard, do well and walk through the “door of opportunity” shouldn’t slam it shut behind them, she said. “You reach back,” she said, “and you give folks the same opportunities you had to get ahead.”
Michelle Obama will hit similar themes Tuesday night in her convention speech in Charlotte, N.C., aides said.
Top Obama strategist David Axelrod called the first lady the campaign’s “No. 1 surrogate” and noted: “It isn’t that she’s terribly political. One of the appeals is she’s not. She speaks in an idiom that middle-class families across the country understand.”
But there’s no doubt the Michelle Obama profile is a matter of personality — and politics — within a White House that uses nontraditional channels to communicate its message. She declined a request to be interviewed for this article. “The first lady is not going to do any interviews with political reporters,” said Olivia Alair, a campaign press secretary.
The first lady often seeks unfiltered ways to reach her targeted constituencies: women, young people, African Americans and Latinos.
She’s praised Beyoncé, and the campaign turned the diva’s fan letter to Michelle Obama into a Web video. She has appeared on dozens of magazine covers, from AARP to Vogue. Ellen DeGeneres goaded her into a televised push-up challenge, which the talk-show hostess lost when Obama pumped out 25.
Michelle Obama is hardly the first presidential spouse to dive into popular or consumer culture. Dolley Madison set the bar for a proper party in the early 1800s. Toward the end of the 19th century, Frances Cleveland’s hairstyle — “the Cleve” — was the rage. Jackie Kennedy’s bouffant hair and pillbox hat were widely copied in the 1960s. And Laura Bush was no stranger to women’s magazines or heart-to-hearts on the couch.
Yet it is hard to imagine the previous first lady assuming the side plank position with contestants of an extreme weight-loss show, or suggesting an erotic novel gives “people permission to explore parts of themselves that maybe felt a bit taboo.”
White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett said Michelle Obama doesn’t agonize over what’s appropriate for a first lady. “She’s not a stereotype,” Jarrett said. “It’s appropriate if she does it — she’s changing the definition of what’s appropriate.”
It doesn’t hurt that the first lady has a knack for talk-show banter. “You have to be a certain type of person to be successful at those things,” said Mark Young, a University of Southern California professor who studies celebrity marketing and the entertainment industry. “She’s self-effacing, funny, comfortable.”
Not everyone is impressed. Her 2010 vacation in Spain with a small entourage cost taxpayers $467,000 for transportation and security, drawing howls. She regularly takes heat from detractors on the right who are quick to cry “nanny state” in response to her healthy foods campaign — or who simply can’t stomach her spouse and his political views.
Even some softer-edge interviews have created a stir. In May, when People magazine asked who she would be if she could be anyone else, Obama’s reply elicited some groans. “If I had some gift, I’d be Beyoncé,” Obama said. “I’d be some great singer.”
When Michelle Obama wants to be a pop star, “how can we expect young black girls who didn’t go to Princeton to aspire to more than that?” wrote author Keli Goff in a column on Loop21.com, a site for news on African American issues.
But such dust-ups haven’t affected Michelle Obama’s penchant for showing up in unexpected places, even to the apparent surprise of some who invite her. In a recent appearance on “Access Hollywood Live” — her third this year — host Billy Bush remarked on her frequent visits and joked that she might be giving the president pause.
“When you get back, do you imagine he’ll say, ‘What’s with you and Billy Bush, this guy?'”