Hurt by Democratic reluctance to climb on board her fight against childhood fat, Michelle Obama is sitting out the tight Senate races in 2014, and the New York Times seems a bit worried the Democrats will miss out on her ability to "connect with women" on the campaign trail. Saturday's front-page story by White House reporter Jackie Calmes featured a flattering photo of the first lady and some low-key fretting about Democratic prospects in the fall.
Calmes' reporting is reliably supportive of Democrats, and "Why Is First Lady Scarce in Campaign? Her Last Name Is Obama," was interspersed with praise for both the crowd-rousing Michelle and that resilient "ace" campaigner, former first lady Hillary Clinton. (The original headline was more negative: "As Michelle Obama Campaigns, Some Democrats Fear Her Last Name Is a Liability.")
She can rouse a crowd as she did here this week, connect with women and drive turnout among African-American voters. Yet despite the nail-biting closeness of state contests to decide which party will control the Senate, Michelle Obama has been largely absent from the campaign trail so far.
She has her reasons, Democrats say: Mrs. Obama hates to be away from her daughters. She loathes Washington’s toxic politics. She resents Republicans for their opposition to her husband’s agenda. But she also believes some Senate Democrats have been insufficiently supportive of her own efforts to end childhood obesity.
But unlike Hillary Rodham Clinton, who as first lady crisscrossed the country for Democrats in 1998, visiting about 20 states, Mrs. Obama will keep to a fairly limited path. In a measure of how deeply unpopular her husband is in Republican-leaning battleground states, Democratic Senate candidates there worry that Mrs. Obama’s presence would tie them too closely to the president they are trying to distance themselves from, just as undecided voters are making up their minds.
In downtown Milwaukee this week, as a couple of thousand people lined up outside a convention center hours ahead of Mrs. Obama’s appearance, campaign workers for Mary Burke, the Democratic candidate for governor, mingled among them with clipboards and computer tablets. They were seeking to capitalize on the first lady’s drawing power by enlisting volunteers and encouraging early voting.
“The biggest fear of the Republican Party is high turnout,” said Joan Zeiger, 71, wearing a union T-shirt. So how does Mrs. Obama help? “She’s black, she’s a woman, and we think that’s a double-whammy.”
Polls show that more than 60 percent of Americans approve of Mrs. Obama’s performance as first lady. That is roughly 20 points higher than the approval rating for her husband, who, not coincidentally, has done almost no public campaign events with candidates, only private fund-raisers.
There are parallels between the Democratic first ladies in their turns as campaign closers -- but significant differences as well.
During the 1998 midterms, President Bill Clinton, like President Obama now, was shunned by many Democratic candidates (Mr. Clinton faced impeachment at the time). In September, Mrs. Clinton shook off her fury at her husband’s philandering and went on the road, gaining popularity for her resilience and becoming “a one-woman campaign machine” by one newspaper’s account, the “Democrats’ ace” by another’s, and “the hottest politician in the land,” according to a third (which also noted that she was not on any ballot “and probably never will be”).
Calmes skipped the unpopularity of Obama's stringent, calorie-restrictive school lunch standards, dismissing popular outcry as merely "Republican and food industry attempts" to weaken the rules. She also tried to cast Michelle Obama in the non-partisan Laura Bush mode, on the weak reed of the fact that she refers to Republicans as "they," which Calmes somehow thinks is not insulting.
“When we stay home, they win,” Mrs. Obama told her Milwaukee crowd. “They,” of course, refers to Republicans, a word the first lady seems to avoid, as if it makes her sound too partisan.
As she campaigns, Mrs. Obama avoids overtly partisan appeals. In that she is perhaps less like Mrs. Clinton and more like Laura Bush, who was also a more sought-after campaigner than her unpopular husband during midterm elections in 2006.
Last month, when Mrs. Obama was in Atlanta for the voter-registration rally with Ms. Nunn, the first lady held an educational event where she praised the wife of Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, a top Democratic target. In Milwaukee, Mrs. Obama never said the name of Ms. Burke’s rival, Gov. Scott Walker, confining her remarks to affirmative reasons to elect Ms. Burke.
Administration aides say the limited list has nothing to do with the fact that Mrs. Obama tangled privately with Senate Democrats for months, into the summer, for not doing more to halt Republican and food industry attempts to weaken the child nutrition and school lunch standards she has spearheaded. She was particularly angered when 11 Democrats from potato-growing states signed a letter by Republicans opposing the administration’s exclusion of white potatoes from the foods that beneficiaries of the Women, Infants and Children program can buy.
The first lady came off as plenty partisan, Calmes' gentle characterization of her "they" rhetorical tic aside:
Referring to Republicans -- again without using the term -- she said, “They’ve even tried to block the work I do on child obesity, and that’s really saying something.”