Can Michelle Obama Rescue the Democrats?

Can Michelle Obama Rescue the Democrats?

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The political debate over Obama continues to rage. No, not President Obama, but First Lady Michelle Obama. The instant that Obama tossed his hat in the presidential ring in February 2007, the public attention and controversy his candidacy stirred were enormous. Being African-American, young, liberal and a relatively unknown quantity as a candidate, the controversy was expected. What wasn’t expected was how quickly Michelle also came under the magnifying glass.

Early on, Michelle had her critics, who found fault with her every move and drove her to set herself apart from the presidency and pursue her own private life and agenda. But now, with the First Lady’s popularity riding high, at a time the Democrats need a big-name attraction on par with Palin or Beck, Michelle is sure to step out on the national stage again ahead of November.

From the beginning, the media and the public had a compulsive fascination with her—their insatiable need to know every bit of motherly, womanly, and wifely gossip. Serving as a surrogate has made her even more vulnerable to the veiled hits against Obama, no matter how low-key and supportive she's remained. She got knocks for the failed Chicago Olympic bid and for uttering a few words on health care reform. Her shopping excursions, the couple's date night in New York, her White House garden and her private vacation to Spain were ridiculed and assailed.

A viral email buzzed around the blogs for a while, hammering her for her high-salaried staff. A British tabloid even engaged in malicious mischief when it claimed that Michelle's undergraduate thesis written in 1985 with the hardly incendiary title of "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community" was an open call for black militancy.

Obama's historic win ensured that he'd be the most watched, admired, and reviled president since Lincoln. Michelle's equally historic step into the First Lady spot assured that she would be the most watched, admired and reviled first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.

But Michelle has confounded the Obama loathers. A recent CNN poll found that a crushing majority of Americans say that they like the way she’s handling her job as First Lady. Not only did she get a high approval rating from Democrats, but a majority of independents like the job she’s doing, too. Her approval rating is a staggering 20 percentage points higher than that of her husband's.

This news could not have come at a more opportune time for the Democrats. Recent polls show that Independents have defected in droves from them and from Obama. These are the voters the Democrats must keep to have any chance of retaining control of the House and maybe even the Senate. Michelle’s popularity with independents is not lost on the White House and Democratic Party strategists. She is now seen as the party’s trump card to fire up its lackluster, indifferent, and even dispirited base—namely, Latinos, African Americans and women.

Michelle will barnstorm for two weeks through seven states drumming up support for key Democrats. She’ll pay special attention to the Democratic Senate candidates in the must-win and closely contested Senate races in Illinois and Wisconsin.

The role of chief Democratic campaign cheerleader is a major role-reversal for her. In the early days after Obama’s election, she repeatedly said she would not be a “co-president” or try to
have any say in domestic and foreign policy decisions. She would stick to her personal pet issues— working to improce children's reading skills, supporting military wives and families, and campaigning for better nutrition and against child obesity. These were relatively safe, nonpolitical, and noncontroversial issues.

But the high political stakes of this election have forced her to set that agenda aside. The mood this year is ugly. The GOP and the pack of right-wing bloggers, talk show jocks, and Tea Party activists have declared virtual war on the Democrats and the Obama administration. They have the verbal and media firepower, impassioned big-name speakers Palin, Beck, and Limbaugh, and tons of backdoor money to rev up their base. The Democrats are doing everything they can to counter the onslaught, and that means trying to re-engage voters before it's too late.

Michelle is  too politically savvy, telegenic, and popular not to be a key go-to person for the Democrats. Between now and November, we'll be seeing a lot of her on the campaign trail. And if she can work her magic this fall, there’ll be even more Michelle sightings on the campaign trail inthe run-up to the 2012 election. Michelle to the Democrat’s rescue, at least that’s the hope.