Post-First Ladyship

03.30.13

Could Michelle Obama Run for the U.S. Senate?

She doesn’t love campaigning and has avoided controversial issues. But Eleanor Clift says the first lady could face pressure to run for the Senate in her home state of Illinois in 2016.

The buzz is beginning about first lady Michelle Obama and the political ambitions she might hold.

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Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon delivers her inaugural speech during ceremonies in Springfield, Ill. Jan. 10, 2011. (Seth Perlman/AP, Seth Perlman)

She’s more popular than her husband in their home state of Illinois, and there’s a potential opening for a Senate seat in 2016, when Republican freshman Mark Kirk faces reelection.  A poll taken before Kirk made an emotional return to the Senate after suffering a stroke found the first lady leading him 51 to 40 percent, numbers that are meaningless this early but still create chatter. A trip to Chicago next month, Michelle’s third since the election, adds to the suspicion she may have her eye on elected office.

“Just because we’re broke, speculation is free—it’s one of the few things we can do,” says Paul Green, a professor of policy studies at Chicago’s Roosevelt University. He notes there are “more similarities than differences” with Hillary Clinton should Obama get drawn into the state’s Senate contest. She would have to file entry papers by December 2015, which means spending the last year of her husband’s presidency on the campaign trail, daring when Hillary did it, and problematical for Michelle, whose daughters would be teenagers and who has never seemed that enamored with campaign life.

“Without asking her, I would guess that the last thing Michelle would do after leaving the White House would be to run for public office,” former Obama senior strategist David Axelrod said in an email. “She has a lifelong commitment to service, but not to politics. I can’t see her going that route.”

But some opportunities must be seized, and there could be enormous pressure on Obama, just as there was on Clinton to win one for the team. She would be formidable in a Democratic primary, but winning statewide could be difficult. “She’s a supporting actress. I don’t know if she can play the lead,” says Green. He points out that unlike Hillary, she has never taken a position on anything that is controversial. Can she stand up in debates when someone really comes after her?

In the end, Obama’s decision will be based on what her gut tells her—does she want to do this?—and on the political realities. David Yepsen, who directs the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, says a lot will depend on whether Kirk runs again. The senator gained a lot of sympathy and respect for how he fought his way back after a debilitating stroke. “If he runs, he will be formidable,” says Yepsen. Obama’s greatest strength is “off-the-chart poll numbers,” but her husband’s popularity the last year of his presidency is unpredictable, and could affect how she is regarded.

“She’s a supporting actress. I don’t know if she can play the lead.”

When asked about the first lady’s political future, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon smiles and says, “Come back home, Michelle.” Simon has her own political pedigree; she’s the daughter of the late senator Paul Simon, a bow tie–wearing, plain-talking traditional liberal who for a time led the presidential field in the Iowa caucuses in 1988 with the slogan “I’m not a new anything, I’m a Democrat.” Simon recently announced she wouldn’t run for reelection as lieutenant governor, but signaled her interest in holding statewide office, which could mean attorney general or governor, or maybe that Senate seat if Obama doesn’t lay claim to it.

Talking about who’s going to run for what is a cottage industry in Illinois, says Yepsen, who should know after spending 34 years with The Des Moines Register watching political hopefuls stake their claims in the Iowa caucuses. He says the woman to watch in Illinois politics is Attorney General Lisa Madigan, daughter of House Speaker Michael Madigan. “If Madigan runs for governor, then a lot of the other politicians can make their moves.” The elder Madigan has been speaker for most of his 30 years there, and his power and influence is the stuff of legend. Terry Michael, who was Paul Simon’s press secretary back in the day, says, “Lisa Madigan, in her father’s eye, is governor in waiting.”

In Washington for a meeting of lieutenant governors, Sheila Simon met with the class Michael teaches at the Center for Politics and Journalism, which he founded some 25 years ago. She said the issues now roiling Washington—same-sex marriage and guns—are playing out in Illinois, too. On Valentine’s Day, she sent heart-shaped cookies with equal signs on them to the state Senate with the message “Something to chew on today as you vote for marriage equality.” The measure passed, and Simon has been lobbying state representatives to complete legislative action by the end of the session in May, telling conservative lawmakers, “I’m Exhibit A that you can be a Southern Illinois political leader and support marriage equality.”

She’s also working with legislators to come up with a new law to replace an old law that banned concealed weapons of any kind and was ruled unconstitutional. “If we don’t come up with a new law, then it’s open-carry—carry your big gun anywhere,” she says.

Simon is 51 years old, tall, and possessed of a big smile that conveys Midwestern values and steadiness. She’s married with two college-age daughters, and her husband, who works at a community college, wears bow ties just like her dad did. In her down time, she plays the banjo in an all-girl band, Loose Gravel.

“I would say we’re nonpartisan, but we’re all terribly liberal,” she said. Down home authenticity is what she’s got, but then so does Michelle Obama, and should she choose to go the political route, the path is there, just as it was for Hillary Clinton.