First Lady Michelle Obama, after a thus-far cautious and non-risky tenure at the White House, on Friday debuts in her first political role since the presidential campaign -- headlining a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.
Mrs. Obama will keynote the DNC's Women's Leadership Forum
, speaking to a mostly female audience of about 500 people who donated from $250 to $5,000 to the DNC to attend the event. The forum, running through Saturday, also includes other top officials from the Obama White House and the DNC.
For now, the Friday event is the only political one on Mrs. Obama's schedule. Whether she decides to stump for the DNC and related committees, or for individual candidates -- and if so, how intensely -- is an open question with millions of political dollars in the balance.
That's because Mrs. Obama would not only be a hot draw at voter registration and get-out-the vote rallies but a major lure for the very top donors who write checks themselves or generate millions of dollars from their networks of friends, family and acquaintances. At that level, donors expect face time with the principals.
Vice President Joe Biden, for example, has been traveling across the nation raising money for Democratic committees and candidates, headlining about 60 political events since March 2009, his office told me.
The president is the main prize for fundraising, but he's hard to get. When a finance committee lands him, it's a guarantee of big money in the bank. Last Friday, Obama generated over $1 million for the DNC at one dinner -- the suggested donation was $30,400 per couple. The supper was at the home of Frank White, a member of Obama's presidential campaign National Finance Committee and one of his mega fundraisers. On April 1 in Boston, the president raised about $2.5 million in one night.
On May 25 in San Francisco, California, Obama handles two high end events to benefit the re-election campaign of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The price tag to be a co-chair is $35,200 per couple-and that includes a photo op with the president and a dinner at a private home. For a $2,000 donation, there is no photo, just a VIP reception and "premium standing" at a cocktail reception. Other ticket prices are $500 to attend a cocktail reception and get "preferred seating" and $250 just to go as a guest.
The DNC has as a main job electing a Democratic president; this year it's bolstering efforts for the midterm elections to maintain a Democratic Congress in support of Obama's agenda. DNC Chairman Tim Kaine last week unveiled a $50 million program to hunt down Obama's 2008 first-time voters and persuade them to return to the voting booth in 2010 to vote for Democrats.
Former First Lady Hillary Clinton, now secretary of state, and Tipper Gore, wife of former Vice President Al Gore, were major fundraising figures during the Clinton administration. Unlike them, Mrs. Obama has two young daughters at home and limits her travel. Jill Biden, who will introduce the first lady at Friday's event, would be a major surrogate if she chose to go on the road, but she has no other political events scheduled at this time.
Mrs. Obama -- along with Oprah Winfrey and the Bidens -- addressed the Women's Leadership Forum in 2008
, when the event, held that year in Chicago, doubled as a "Women for Obama" function, with proceeds helping to elect Barack Obama to the White House. About 1,000 women paid $2,500 to $28,500 to attend the two-day forum, which included a speech from candidate Obama in a separate session.
While Friday's DNC fundraiser is Mrs. Obama's first for the 2010 cycle, Susan Sher, the first lady's chief of staff, told me not to read too much into it and no decision has been made about any other political activities. Appearing at the event, Sher said, "seemed like a good opportunity" for Mrs. Obama "to talk about what she has been doing. I would not see this as a precedent for anything. . . . We all thought this would be a good opportunity for her to talk to Democratic women leaders."
How will Mrs. Obama decide what her other 2010 political activities will be? Sher said it will depend on what she "is comfortable with, what the president is comfortable with and what is most helpful."
One reason the first lady Obama has high favorability ratings is her avoidance of any controversy since moving into the White House. Taking on political chores for anyone except her husband may be risky, as it could make her more of a partisan target.
Friday's event seems to hold little or no risk. "We aren't concerned about this event because she will be talking about the accomplishments of the administration, including hers and her husband's. The tone of her remarks will make that clear," Sher told me.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who holds two powerful political jobs as a vice chair of the DNC and vice chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told me Mrs. Obama "lights up a room and is a force in her own right." If Mrs. Obama decides to jump back in the fray, Wasserman Schultz said, "she will be a tremendous asset for Democratic candidates on the trail this year."