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How Michelle Obama Turned Around Her Image

5 years ago
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First Lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday visited a Marine Corps Toys for Tots distribution center outside of Washington, toured the warehouse, thanked the volunteers, and dropped off toys donated by White House staffers and the Obamas.

"It's Christmas, and we brought toys," she said. "We wish everybody a happy holidays, a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, everybody out there who's celebrating anything: Happy." She spent 15 minutes there and less than an hour later was back home at the White House, with First Dog Bo bounding over from the South Lawn to greet her with an affectionate rub.

And happy Mrs. Obama should be.

The latest polls demonstrate how firmly she has turned around her image since hitting a low point during the presidential campaign, when she was seen by some as angry, dogged by her February, 2008 remark about how, "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country." She has done this by framing herself as a wife, mother, daughter and sister, not trying to redefine the role of first lady, limiting interviews and staying militantly noncontroversial.

A Marist College Institute for Public Opinion poll conducted Dec. 2, 3 and 7 found that that 68 percent of those surveyed had an overall favorable impression of Mrs. Obama. A Fox News survey on Nov. 17-18 had 63 percent of respondents saying they had a favorable opinion of her. That's down from her high of 73 percent in another Fox News poll taken April 22-23 but more important, she rebounded after hitting a low of 44 percent in a June 17-18 2008 survery done after her husband effectively clinched the Democratic nomination on June 3.

And yet another poll found a surprising reason for Mrs. Obama's changing fortunes -- she surged in popularity among Republican women. An April Pew poll found that 67 percent of GOP women had a favorable impression of Mrs. Obama, up 21 points from January.

"She has been able to avoid the political fray throughout 2009. She hasn't really spoken out in any real way in the big debates of the year on Afghanistan, health care, immigration, climate," presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told me Thursday. "And so she sort of neutralized herself politically."

Brinkley said with a "national food fight between the right and left," being a "first lady above the fray" has paid off for Mrs. Obama. "Certainly Laura Bush did this, wrapped herself around literacy and her numbers stayed high while [former President] Bush's were tumbling."

Mrs. Obama has become a fashion plate, a mom who attends the soccer and basketball games of daughters Malia and Sasha, a woman who works on her tennis game, and an executive who presides over a staff of around two dozen in the East Wing. They help her execute her limited, but safe agenda: entertaining at White House functions, encouraging healthy eating and exercise, battling childhood obesity, helping military families, mentoring girls, balancing work and family and boosting national service. Mrs. Obama is also not in the midst of a campaign; she is defining herself, not her opponents.

"She hasn't gone the Hillary Clinton or Eleanor Roosevelt route of becoming a shrill policy advocate," Brinkley said, preferring the role of a traditional first lady. While President Obama faces criticism from some people who feel "he can be arrogant," Mrs. Obama "seems to be keeping him in his place; that's the image you get. And people kind of like that in general," Brinkley said.

The turnaround started in summer 2008, with a push to show Mrs. Obama as a family person. Mrs. Obama's reframing at the August Democratic National Convention in Denver demonstrated that people do have a second chance at a first impression.

The biographical video setting up Mrs. Obama's convention speech, by the media firm Murphy Putnam, was titled "South Side Girl." Mrs. Obama's story was narrated by her mother, Marian Robinson, who raised her family in a small apartment on Chicago's South Side, with her now deceased husband, Fraser, a city worker.

"A mother is every child's greatest fan. And it would really, I thought, help show the human side of Michelle," Mark Putnam, the Murphy Putnam partner who made the video, told me on Thursday.

Putnam's mandate was to give people "a much more complete picture of Michelle Obama and to correct the record on misperceptions about her," he said. Before that, "her story had not been a focus of the campaign...she never had a full introduction in the first place."

A June 18, 2008 poll by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism illustrated the image challenge for Mrs. Obama and her handlers. While people surveyed said they had heard more about Michelle Obama than Cindy McCain, the wife of the Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the GOP presidential candidate, more of the news about Mrs. Obama was bad. While only 7 percent said that news about Mrs. McCain was "mostly negative," some 26 percent said the news about Mrs. Obama was "mostly negative."

At the convention, Mrs. Obama's brother, Craig, introduced her before her speech as "my little sister."

Said Mrs. Obama, "I come here tonight as a sister, blessed with a brother who is my mentor, my protector and my lifelong friend. And I come here as a wife who loves my husband and believes he will be an extraordinary president. And I come here as a Mom whose girls are the heart of my heart and the center of my world -- they're the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning, and the last thing I think about when I go to bed at night. Their future -- and all our children's future -- is my stake in this election. And I come here as a daughter -- raised on the South Side of Chicago by a father who was a blue collar city worker, and a mother who stayed at home with my brother and me."

Since, then, Mrs. Obama has relied heavily on her biography in her speeches. Besides her story, though, another reason for Mrs. Obama's turnaround was her decision not to try to reinvent the Office of First Lady once the First Family and Mrs. Robinson moved in the White House on Jan. 22.

The Marist poll posed an interesting question on this point. Respondents were asked, "Has Michelle Obama changed the overall role of the First Lady for the better, the worse, or has not changed the overall role of the First Lady at all?" Thirty-seven percent said she changed the role for the better, down from 43 percent when the same question was asked in April. But some 46 percent surveyed said she had not changed the role at all, up from 32 percent last April.

For someone looking not to rock the boat, these numbers are fine. While President Obama ran as a candidate of "Hope" and "Change," Mrs. Obama never promised an East Wing makeover.

Lee M. Miringoff, the Marist Poll director, said, "maybe the White House does not want the first lady breaking new ground. In that case, no controversial news is good news."

The only new ground Mrs. Obama has broken has been her wildly successful White House kitchen garden. The winter vegetable planting took place two weeks ago. She will have more to harvest. Said Miringoff, "It is one year down, three to go, but this is a good start."
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