Sunday, October 17, 2010

Michelle Obama emerges as powerful Democratic weapon

Michelle Obama emerges as powerful Democratic weapon

WASHINGTON: Just dubbed the world's most powerful woman, Michelle Obama, America's "Mom in chief" is using her growing political heft to refresh the crisis-wearied narrative of her husband's presidency.

With Democrats girding for a beating in mid-term elections next month, the First Lady will be in Ohio on Sunday for her first campaign appearance with President Barack Obama since his barnstorming 2008 presidential race.

Two years on, Michelle Obama, 46, is more popular than the president -- her approval rating was 65 percent in a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll. The president's approval languishes at around 45 percent in most surveys.

She is being used as an adept messenger to express empathy with economically blighted Americans, an area where the president, whose image has been sullied by the bitter Washington crossfire, has struggled.

Michelle Obama's blooming political confidence, a weapon for a White House facing an approaching Republican tide, marks an evolution from the uncertain and even polarizing figure she became in the early days of the 2008 race.

But her time as First Lady has also not been without missteps, including a lavish trip to Spain earlier this year that was panned by critics and mocked by conservative radio talk show hosts as evidence of undue entitlement.

Despite that, Michelle Obama has built up goodwill in a traditional First Lady role with her work fighting child obesity, promoting nutrition and fitness and advocacy for families of US troops serving abroad.

"She's managed to transform from someone that some voters had a lot of questions about, to someone ... staying above the fray of typical politics," said Kareem Crayton a professor at the University of North Carolina.

Michelle Obama, Crayton said, has managed to find a place in the "national discourse without getting too much into the polarized fracas that is typical policy debates these days."

Placing Obama at the top of its World's 100 most powerful women list, Forbes magazine glowingly said she was more into policy than her predecessor Laura Bush but avoided divisive areas like former first lady Hillary Clinton.

"A fashion icon and an athletic mother of two, she's Jackie Kennedy with a law degree from Harvard and street sense from Chicago's South Side," said the magazine, which only recently carried a withering critique of President Obama.

In Michelle Obama's solo debut on the 2010 campaign stump last week, in Wisconsin, the First Lady dubbed herself America's "Mom-in-Chief" in a poignant show of empathy with Americans yet to feel the slow economic recovery.

"I know that a lot of folks are still hurting, I know that for a lot of folks, change hasn't come fast enough," she said, and said that she had learned the stakes of the mid-term polls from her travels outside the White House.

"I see it in the child whose dad has just been deployed and is trying to hard to be brave for his younger brothers and sisters."

"I see it in the child stuck in a crumbling school, who looks around and wonders 'what on earth is this going to mean for my future?"

But Obama also tried to reinfuse supporters with the heady sense of hope which underpinned the presidential run.

Her speech won warm praise in the media, and in its appeal to mothers, families and the economically bereft, boosted the president's message that he understands the misery in the heartland.

"She's a remarkable campaigner. It's not surprising to us that she got the type of rave reviews that she got yesterday," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Crayton said Michelle Obama was a powerful political tool for Democrats.

"The people that the president is losing at the moment are the white suburban women, many of whom are parents," he said.

"Reaching that crowd might be more likely from a person who can speak in the language that women who are in that position talk everyday ... questions that are close to home."

As First Lady, Obama has stressed her White House life with daughters Malia and Sasha, maternal instincts and humble upbringing rather than her high professional and academic pedigree.

But she was not always popular or even widely admired.

An unwise comment early in the 2008 campaign as she commented on the explosion in support for her husband: "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country" unleashed a tide of criticism.

Critics lambasted her as an African American radical and unpatriotic, and image that began to be truly dispelled with an effective speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.


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