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11.01.10

Could Michelle Have Helped the Dems?

With approval ratings at 70 percent, the first lady is the Democrats’ most popular pol. Pity she wasn’t out louder and longer rallying the women’s vote.

Plus, join Howard Kurtz and The Daily Beast team for a live chat on the elections tonight at 8 p.m. EST, read your election guide, and check the Election Oracle for predictions.

At rallies today in Pennsylvania and Nevada, First Lady Michelle Obama—known as “The Closer” on the 2008 campaign trail—is making a last-ditch closing argument for the Democrats.

 She's hit eight cities in the last two weeks, emerging from months of political hibernation—OK, speaking out for healthy food and better schools—in an 11th-hour push aimed at staving off a scheduled landslide. Making whistle stops in New York, California, Illinois, Colorado, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Washington State, she's determined to rally the base. “We can’t stop now; we’ve come too far,” she told a dinner crowd in Seattle—adding a “Yes we can!" fist pump as an afterthought.

If anybody can, Michelle can—at least on paper. At a time when her husband's approval rating has plummeted, hers stand strong at 70 percent—making her one of the most popular figures in Washington. And she appeals to a crucial constituency—female voters, a decisive bloc this fall. "She’s a terrific asset to Democrats this cycle,” says Jen Bluestein, communications director at Emily’s List. It helps that Mrs. Obama projects that purple glow her husband used to talk about. “She’s very popular with Democrats but she’s also increasingly popular with Republicans and Independents,” adds Hari Sevugan, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee.

The woman who conspicuously coined the term “mom-in-chief” has yet to embrace the trend toward unapologetic female political empowerment.

But on the trail, Obama has yet to embrace the trend toward bare-knuckled female political empowerment.

Which raises a tough question: Could the country’s most popular female political figure have started earlier, shouted louder, and helped turn the straying sisters around? Or has the first lady—who famously coined the title “mom-in-chief”—relinquished the feminist brand, to the detriment of the Democrats?  

As far as the East Wing is concerned, Obama has played ball. “She always wants to be value added toward what the administration is doing,” says Katherine McCormick-Lelyveld, Obama’s press secretary. “The midterms are a key part of that.”  

But “She’s become perhaps more guarded and more cautious in her presentation,” says Patrice Yursik, a black beauty blogger who attended a California women’s conference at which Michelle Obama spoke last month. “There was no mention that we’re even in an election season.”  

There’s no doubt the Dems need help. If the trendlines showing up in regional polling hold true on Election Day, the Republicans will be the party making gains with female voters and candidates. In 1992, there were 140 Democrats and 82 Republican women running for the House; in 2010, the GOP has fielded an equal number of women—many of whom are poised to win. Forget Christine O’Donnell: Gubernatorial candidates Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Susana Martinez of New Mexico and New Hampshire senator-in-waiting Kelly Ayotte are just three female politicians now expected to expand the GOP map.

Meanwhile, prominent Democratic women—senators Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Patty Murray in Washington—are on the ropes. First-term House members Betsey Markey and Ann Kirkpatrick face tough challenges as well. Kamala Harris, a rising Democratic star running for attorney general in California, is in the fight of her life.

The irony is that the losing team has long supported policies that help women. The White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have stepped up their rhetoric on women and the economy in the last two weeks. But Michelle Obama may have missed an opportunity to lead the charge.  

The political potency of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has led progressive women to call for one of their own to match the ex-governor’s volume and reach. Writing in The New York Times, Rebecca Traister and Anna Holmes sought “a smart, unrelenting female, who, unlike Ms. Palin, wants to tear down, not reinforce, traditional ways of looking at women.” Palin has her “Mama Grizzly” candidates—why not “Obama Grizzlies?”  

Members of the White House political team conceded that Republicans have regained ground in the suburbs, where many of Obama’s biggest fans reside. In Illinois, losses in counties ringing the first lady’s hometown have put the governorship and the president’s former Senate seat in jeopardy. What’s more, traditionally Democratic women are tuned out. “We always have trouble with lower-income women—they trend Democratic, but they have so many things to think about," says Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois. Durbin added that Obama has been very effective in connecting with the economic and social needs of working women and families, in small groups at the White House.  

But the woman who conspicuously coined the term “mom-in-chief” has yet to embrace the trend toward unapologetic female political empowerment.  

Indeed, Obama’s current popularity rests on perceptions of her commitment to gauzy personal issues. “What we hear the most from the field is her commitment to helping families,” says Sevugan. “[Voters] see her as someone who has the same concerns, a regular person who’s a mom and who is a wife.”

“She is demonstrating a tremendous sensitivity to issues that one would consider to be extremely important to children,” adds House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. “People love her for it.”

But her home-and-hearth appeal hasn’t closed the deal in this noisy campaign season. Murray, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senators Russ Feingold and Michael Bennet, and Illinois Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulas all rallied with the first lady, yet are even or trailing in recent polls.  

Of course, Mrs. Obama isn’t a magician—she isn’t even an elected official. And there may only be so much any first lady can do to move the electoral needle. But while the Democrats have many female surrogates—Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, DNC Co-Chair Donna Brazile, even Obama’s close friend Valerie Jarrett—none have been able to pack the punch of Palin. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arguably the party’s most influential female leader, is legally barred from campaigning.) As not just mom but woman-in-chief, Obama seemed the most likely voice to break through.  

Part of the difficulty in converting Obama’s warm fuzzies into Democratic votes is her general approach to campaigning. On the trail, she has tended to cast political arguments in terms of family. “When I think about the issues facing our nation right now, I think about what that means for our girls,” she told a crowd in Ohio, where she made her first joint appearance with the president since 2008.  “I think about what that means for the world that we’re leaving for them and, quite frankly, for all of our children.” During the flurry of debate over Arizona’s controversial immigration policy, she deflected a question from a second grader whose mother was in the United States illegally with a “yes, sweetie.”  

When she hit up an October women’s conference in California, capped by a debate between gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman, she spoke for 25 minutes, not about the economy that’s driving voters from Democrats, but about military families—an area of deep commitment for both Obama and second lady Jill Biden. “Michelle Obama has become very astute about what the public is going to say about her and the reaction of their political opponents will be to things that she wears, things that she says, and especially appearances  she makes,” says Yursik. “It was a genuine plea, but who in their right mind is going to say something negative about her talking about military families?”

Courtney Martin, writing in The American Prospect, took the critique further: “Unlike Palin, who is aggravating because she's all style and no substance, the first lady is driving many a feminist batty because she's got so much substance but is shrouding it in nonthreatening style.”  

There are those in both the East and West wings who feel more aggressive politics would be inappropriate.  “I think she’s been wise to be careful and cautious,” says Juleanna Glover Weiss, a Bush administration alumnus now consulting for the Ashcroft Group. “This is not her world, it’s her husband’s world.” What’s more, this behavior is not surprising for first ladies, who are typically “not involved in the sort of horse trading that you see when we’re talking about partisan politics,” says Hilary Shelton, NAACP Washington bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy. 

But the former nonprofit executive knows how to turn the screws when it counts. Behind the scenes of her hula-hooping and harvesting, Obama has been a tenacious lobbyist for healthy living policies to match her personal effort. When she invited members of Congress to the White House to discuss school lunch policy, they were skeptical that a bill could be passed in the face of food and soft drink industry opposition. But the first lady had done her homework—personally lobbying industry executives and including them in the conversation. “Last time we did a child nutrition bill, you couldn’t even discuss much less win a vote on the question of healthy foods and soda pop,” says Education Committee Chairman George Miller. “She was our icebreaker.”  

And, in 2008, Obama was known for her willingness to “go there” when her husband could not. Nearly three years ago, she addressed a group of black women in South Carolina who were worried that her husband was too good to be true:

I equate it to that aunt or that grandmother that bought all that new furniture—spent her life savings on it and then what does she do? She puts plastic on it to protect it. That plastic gets yellow and scratches up your leg and it’s hot and sticky. But see grandma is just trying to protect that furniture—the problem is—it’s that she doesn’t get the full enjoyment—the benefit from the furniture because she’s trying to protect it. I think folks just want to protect us from the possibility of being let down—not by us—but by the world as it is. A world—they fear—is not ready for a decent man like Barack. Sometimes it seems better not to try at all than to try and fail.  

The frank and funny speech was a hit, and marked the beginning of the surge in black voter support for her husband in the state that would lead to his securing the Democratic nomination for president.  

The protective plastic is also a metaphor for Obama’s engagement since taking “office.” The mom-in-chief message just hasn’t roused the country—including its male half—that seems ready for strong women to lead well.  

The DNC estimates that today’s rallies will draw tens of thousands more to hear Obama’s closing argument. It may be that 2010 hasn’t gotten the best of Obama. “She's done what she can but a lot of what she can do is limited by family—and that's not going to change," says senior White House adviser David Axelrod, who adds that 2012 will show a return to fighting form. “It's always different when you're campaigning for your husband."  

And for Obama, it could be just the beginning: On one of the first lady’s summer trips to the Gulf Coast, residents waved “Michelle 2016” signs as a greeting.

Dayo Olopade is a political reporter for The Daily Beast and a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.