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Politics

How Michelle Obama became more than just another political voice

Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama
Hillary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama campaign for the first time together Thursday in Winston-Salem, N.C.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

When Michelle Obama delivered the most influential speech of the 2016 campaign in an out-of-the-way stop in New Hampshire, she suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly commanded the spotlight with her emotional account of how Donald Trump’s private words about women’s bodies had “shaken me to my core.” 

Though she spoke earlier this month while much of the country was seeing for the first time video of Trump’s lewd bragging, the first lady actually had been working on the address for weeks, incorporating her growing concern about the GOP presidential nominee’s many insults of women into a polemic that drew from her own experiences of being verbally harassed on the street and ogled at work.

“I feel it so personally.” she said. “The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman.”

Trump’s attitude toward women had been “weighing on her for a long time,” one senior adviser said. “She wanted to speak about it.”

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The speech, amplified by timing and met with an enthusiastic response, cemented Obama’s place as a star of the presidential race and put a defining stroke not just on how women view Trump but on herself as a voice of moral authority. Three months before leaving the White House, she already is among the ranks of public figures who transcend politics and title.

She’s variously called an “icon,” one of “the greats” and a woman who “changed history” in an essay collection in the current issue of the New York Times’ “T” magazine, titled “To the First Lady, with Love.”

“When you rise to a level like that, you see how much weight your words carry,” said Anita McBride, former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush and executive in residence at the School of Public Affairs at American University. “We know she didn’t like politics. But she was impassioned by the language that was used, and she feels compelled to speak out. People listen to her.”

For Obama, it was an uphill climb to that moment. She was reticent to get involved in campaigns early on, suspecting that they were difficult for a family.

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“Michelle was never wild about politics,” President Obama told late-night host Jimmy Kimmel this week. When he was thinking of running for president, he said, his wife told him, “You would make an outstanding president, and I would work so hard to make sure you were president ... if I weren’t married to you.”

Her fears proved prescient in the 2008 Democratic primary, when a fierce stereotype of her as an angry black woman developed. A cartoon on the cover of the New Yorker pictured her in militant garb.

She pulled out of the campaign for weeks, emerging later with a bold and disciplined new branding plan that included careful decisions about what she said in interviews and to whom she said it. She since has favored women’s and celebrity magazines and friendly television venues over straight news outlets.

And at the heart of her strategy is a cautious defense of her time. She takes care to leave plenty of it for her teenage daughters — but also to place a premium on when she appears in the spotlight.

While her husband and Vice President Joseph Biden were starting to publicly back former secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the beginning of the summer as she closed in on the Democratic presidential nomination, Michelle Obama mostly held her fire until the Democratic National Convention at the end of July.

When she did take the stage, Democrats who remembered the enmity between the Obama and Clinton camps in 2008 were rapt, listening to see how hard she would lean into the endorsement.

Obama did not worry about selling her lines, one adviser said. She has developed a deep respect for her East Wing predecessor.

“I trust Hillary to lead this country,” Obama said, “because I’ve seen her lifelong devotion to our nation’s children, not just her own daughter, who she has raised to perfection.”

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Her pitch has been similarly personal on the campaign trail, where Obama has been available more than Clinton campaign officials anticipated.

At one event, she said of Clinton that “when she gets knocked down … she doesn’t complain.” For emphasis, Obama tapped her mic — a reference to Trump’s complaints that his microphone hadn’t been working properly at the first presidential debate. The wordless put-down went viral.

“She’s particularly effective because she’s not viewed as someone who lives in the day-to-day political battles,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a top adviser to the Clinton campaign. “They don’t see her in the daily tumult.”

Indeed, Obama’s positioning of herself as far outside of politics as is possible for a first lady has helped mute criticism and contributed to a perception that she is above the fray.

Republicans have been sparing, if sharp, in their criticism of her. After she said Trump exhibited “sexually predatory behavior” in bragging about grabbing women in the “Access Hollywood” video from 2005, Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, said he didn’t understand the basis of her claim.

“What he’s made clear,” Pence said of Trump, “is that was talk, regrettable talk, on his part, but that there were no actions.”

Trump fired off critical tweets about other speakers at the Democratic convention, but was mum on Michelle Obama. A GOP spokesman said, “The first lady is off-limits.”

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Later, Trump complained about an implicit shot Obama took at Clinton during the 2008 primaries, though the first lady has denied she was targeting her husband’s then-rival.

This fall, she has made it clear to White House aides that she didn’t just want to take on Trump, she wanted to take a stand for women and girls — and for Clinton in particular.

At their first joint campaign event, in a North Carolina arena packed with 11,000 supporters Thursday, Obama acknowledged that it’s “unprecedented” for a first lady to campaign as much as she has.

“That may be true,” she said. “But this is also an unprecedented election.”

Abio Harris, 54, and Yvette Jones, 57, who work together at a local nonprofit, like Clinton. But they love Obama.

“Michelle is very deep,” Jones said. “She can take things to a different level.”

Harris was effusive. “I love FLOTUS,” she said, referring to Obama by the Washington shorthand for first lady of the United States. “She represents the best of the administration.”

Megerian reported from Winston-Salem, N.C., and Parsons from Washington.

Twitter: @cparsons, @chrismegerian

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