By Alexandra Jaffe - 09/03/12 09:00 AM EDT
She’s certainly not a “secret” weapon in the same way Republicans say Ann Romney is, but Michelle ObamaMichelle ObamaFirst Nigerian girl taken by Boko Haram rescued WATCH: Obama accidentally steps on First Lady's dress at state dinner The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE is still a weapon — one of the strongest the Democrats have.
The first lady is key in the Democrats’ effort to energize and turn out their grassroots supporters, and that’s what she’ll be aiming to accomplish with the opening speech at the Democratic National Convention this year.
This time, her job will be tougher. She will have to sell her husband’s vision to voters, while the economic recovery sputters dubiously along and 2008’s promised changes take longer than expected.
Lisa Burns, a professor of communications at Quinnipiac University who has studied first ladies throughout history, said that Michelle has played a role similar to that of Laura Bush during her husband’s reelection campaign.
“Laura Bush was always incredibly popular. Even during the reelection campaign, when her husband’s numbers had dipped, they were able to send her out there as someone whom people liked and someone whom people respected,” she said.
Anita McBride, executive in residence at American University’s Department of Government and formerly chief of staff to Laura Bush, agreed, and suggested that Michelle’s convention speech could serve the same purpose as Laura’s did during the 2004 Republican convention.
That speech “was widely regarded as a pivotal moment for a lot of people — particularly women, who were really on the fence about someone whom they perceived to be aggressive,” she said.
During the speech, Laura offered a behind-the-scenes description of her husband’s decisionmaking process, humanizing the president and portraying him as a measured, deliberate commander in chief.
Just as Laura’s task was to sell voters on the pre-eminent challenge of Bush’s presidency — the war on terror — Michelle will need to sell voters on Obama’s vision for the economy.
Four years ago, such a chore did not seem feasible for a woman whom many Americans did not yet know and many with conservative leanings did not quite trust.
For much of her husband’s primary campaign, Michelle was regarded with suspicion and often derision by conservative commentators. She had been referred to as her husband’s “bitter half,” had appeared on the cover of the National Review with the headline “Mrs. Grievance” and was rumored to have called white people “whitey.”
But according to New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor, who profiled the first couple in her book The Obamas, Michelle made a concerted effort in the middle of the 2008 campaign to revamp her campaigning style, and changed some people’s minds.
“Friends from Chicago say the Michelle Obama you see on the campaign trail is authentic. They recognize the warmth — what’s been edited out is her forcefulness,” Kantor said.
Michelle, Kantor points out, has always been disciplined on the trail: She gives essentially the same stump speech, always mentions her upbringing, and rarely takes chances on off-the-cuff remarks.
That discipline has paid off. Michelle’s favorable rating has remained high, and might explain why she’s now considered by the Obama campaign “the closer” — the one campaigner who can gin up grassroots support and enthusiasm to the same degree as the president himself.
That was a role she came to play in 2008, and one the campaign says she’s reprising this time around with the “It Takes One” initiative, which aims to expand the president’s base.
“During the last campaign, the first lady was better at rallying support around the president than anyone else. She started out going from living room to living room in Iowa, and later from crowd to crowd in states around the country, talking about the president’s values and vision for the country. And she convinced people one by one that he could win with their support,” said Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, adding that she is doing much the same work this time around.
Michelle has appeared at numerous campaign events and more than 80 fundraisers since last spring, according to information provided by her staff. At most events, she offers hugs and anecdotes of family life in the White House, as well as the story of her background and her and her husband’s efforts to improve the lives of Americans.
The first lady’s personal initiatives, too, have been politically salient: Polls have indicated Mitt Romney has outperformed President Obama with married women, and mothers are more skeptical of the president than are women without children. But Michelle’s Let’s Move! initiative, which focuses on healthy eating for families, is a way for her to connect to those women. And though Republicans traditionally win the military vote, Michelle’s focus on veterans’ issues could help her husband move the needle with that voting bloc as well.
Just as in 2008, Michelle faces pressure to perform at this year’s convention. But McBride said the mere fact of her point of view — that of a behind-the-scenes observer, and the person closest to the president — will make this speech an easier sell.
“She’s going to make a great case for him, having watched him from the human side of his presidency,” she said.