On January 11, 2012, Michelle Obama went off message in a big way, saying three of the White House’s least favorite words: “angry black woman.”
“That’s been an image that people have tried to paint of me since, you know, the day Barack announced,” she told Gayle King on CBS, discussing a just-released book about her marriage called The Obamas. “That I’m some angry black woman.”
The phrase sent flashes of panic throughout the East Wing, threatening to undo the carefully crafted image that the First Lady and her staff had built up over the past three years. Mother, celebrity, style icon, and wholesomely benign apple pie/Target political force, with signature campaigns to prevent childhood obesity and work with military veterans, all aimed at undercutting the caricature created by her husband’s political opponents of her as a radical Angela Davis-type.
That stereotype framed the debate around her four years ago. According to the McCain campaign and its conservative allies, Michelle Obama was a “bitter” woman, as one popular blogger put it, who wasn’t “proud” of her country, a sentiment that was allegedly revealed in a remark she made during her husband’s first presidential campaign.
In the aftermath of the Gayle King interview, Obama’s’s aides privately complained to CBS that the interview “lingered too long” on the book, according to network television sources. The interview had been locked up weeks before, according to White House officials—it was the debut week for King’s CBS This Morning —and the host had asked Michelle to be her marquee guest. (“It’s the Oprah connection,” as one White House official put it, referring to Barack and Michelle’s friendship with booster Oprah Winfrey.)
Ironically, Obama’s image rehabilitation was one of the subject’s of author Jodi Kantor’s largely flattering portrait of the first lady. “Many reviewers called her the heroine of the book,” Kantor tells BuzzFeed. “It’s the story of someone who doubted political life for very good reasons and conquered it anyway.”
But seeing her image and family dynamics dissected in print incensed Obama anyway, prompting her to tell King she wouldn’t “read these books.”
The controversy faded, this time, partly because she was very careful not to go there again as her husband’s re-election campaign ramped up. Since the CBS interview, Obama barely mentioned race in any of the public interviews she’s given, not even saying the word “black,” according to review of the publicly available transcripts of her major appearances. And when she did confront the subject head on — two well scripted speeches in front of African American audiences at an African Methodist Church and a historically black college — there was no backlash at all.
Even more remarkably, Michelle Obama has managed not only to navigate the strange political atmosphere where talking about her own race unscripted is considered a gaffe, but has put together a gaffe-free run across the board, becoming one of the most powerful campaigners the White House has in its arsenal. As of August 15, she’s done 64 campaign events since the beginning of the year — 22 have been speeches or public events, and 42 have been private fundraisers, with tickets costing up $50,000.
“She has taken a role which is much more front and center as a campaigner,” says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the historian of the National First Ladies Library and author of the two-volume history, First Ladies. “And it’s entirely independent of the President. It is almost as if she is also running for re-election as First Lady.”
Typically, Michelle Obama’s speeches open with a general welcome and some comments about how she enjoys travelling around America. She tells her husband’s story (raised by a single mom) and then chastises the audience mildly, telling them that Barack can’t do it alone. “He’s not a super hero,” she told an audience at singer Gwen Stefani’s house in Hollywood last weekend. “He’s not Spider-Man.” And, in a striking contrast to the “change we can believe in” slogan of 2008, she ends by reminding the audience that “real change is slow,” the signature line in her stump speech.
“I can watch her speeches now, and I know that nothing has changed dramatically,” says a former East Wing aide. “Okay, here’s someone who has been doing this for several years now.”
It wasn’t always that way. “She has really changed greatly for someone who was skeptical of her husband’s plan to run for the presidency, and being a little standoff-ish with audiences, she’s just done a 180,” adds Professor Myra Gutin, a first lady scholar at Rider University. “She is much more comfortable. I’ve seen her work a crowd like she didn’t do last time around.” Obama herself refers to how “nervous” she was when first went out on the trail “back [when] people barely even knew who Barack was, let alone who I was,” as she said in a speech this week in Iowa.
Her new strategy is called “It Takes One,” which she personally started to develop in the spring, according to White House and campaign officials. In May, Michelle Obama began a series of meetings in her personal office in the East Wing with senior staff, including Stephanie Cutter, the head of the communications for the Obama campaign. According to two officials who attended the meetings, Michelle wanted to define her role in the campaign in the most effective way possible. Early in the administration, she’d clashed with the West Wing over how best to schedule her time, feeling like there was an ad hoc nature to requests to stump for the president or his allies. No longer.
“The President and the first lady basically split the country up in two,” a senior campaign official tells BuzzFeed. “We send her into every single major media market, and she has tremendous presence.”
She prefers a well-defined role which allows her to see the results of her efforts. “In Iowa in 2007, she was ‘the closer’ at events, encouraging listeners to fill out the caucus registration form. She’s into metrics — at every event she wants to know how many people filled out forms. That was her measure of success. She was looking for something like that this time,” says the senior campaign official. The result—It Takes One—was set for a rollout in July, when she joined the president on a trip to Florida; the idea is that she’ll make a personal appeal to the audience, hoping to re-establish some of the emotional momentum the campaign has lost since 2008. The shooting in Aurora, Colorado, however, overshadowed the launch off It Takes One, but it’s now up and running.
Obama’s campaign staff are quick to stress that despite the grueling schedule, she’s a “mother first,” as one put it. “She makes sure, even if we’re doing three stops, to be home in time to put the girls to bed,” the aide explained. Her staff thinks she’s no longer viewed through the lens of race, and she’s transcended to become a sort of motherly figure to all Americans. Behind closed doors, “I’ve never heard her talk about race,” one long time staffer tells BuzzFeed.”
“I don’t think they see her as black or white, whether we were in Jacksonville, Florida, or Charlottesville, Virginia, crowds of all shapes and sizes and background would come out and see her,” says a senior campaign official. “I’ve worked for a lot of candidates: the president always get tens of thousands to come to events, I’ve never seen a spouse get this reaction. She has mass appeal.” The latest polls show her at around a 65 percent favorability rating.
Just in the past two weeks, she’s gone from London to New Hampshire to Califronia to Iowa. In England, she delivered one of the most powerful and touching moments of the Olympic Games — the sight of the U.S. Men’s basketball team lining up to hug her, as if getting a blessing, or comfort, from her strength as a mother-figure; this week, she made an appearance on the Tonight Show with Gabby Douglas, another Olympic gold medalist.
On her way out to California, she made a surprise visit at the hospital for victims of the Aurora shooting. “First lady Michelle Obama reached out with both hands, gave hugs and offered thanks to doctors and staff during a surprise visit to the Medical Center of Aurora Saturday,” as the pool report told the story. (She also did a campaign fundraising event in Denver that same day.)
“She gives you the feeling she is your sister, your mother, your girlfriend, your neighbor, your co-worker whenever you have a direct relationship to her,” says a senior campaign official. This kind of spin is an attempt by the campaign to re-enforce the idea that Obama isn’t a divisive figure defined by her strong personality (or her race, for that matter) but one who fits into the inoffensive, stereotypical First Lady mold.
With 82 days left until the election, her goal is to get her husband elected—and not lose him any votes, either. Former and current staffers say that she vowed after her stumbles in 2008 never to cost her husband support at the ballot box again.
It’s been the bane of first ladies—Betty Ford was horrified after she’d done a 60 Minutes story and answered a gotcha question about what would happen if her daughter had an affair. She received a mountain of hate mail for it. “People said she was unfit to be First Lady, that she was a bad mother, and she was really terrified by the public response,” says historian Gutin. “President Ford was asked about this whole hubbub the morning after it all went down, and he said, jokingly, ‘At first I was worried it would cost me 10 million votes, but then I raised the estimate to 15 million.’ [Michelle] is very much aware that she doesn’t want him to spend any of his political capital cleaning up after her.” (To be fair, Betty Ford was also more popular than Gerald—women had campaign buttons made up that said: “I’m Voting for Betty’s Husband.”)
It’s in this vein Michelle Obama has taken to the trail on the sprint to the finish. Her signature program—Let’s Move—is about discipline, activity movement. In this spirit, she seems to campaign. The trail is a physically grueling experience, and with her no sleeves shirt (“Her arms,” one supporter exclaimed at an event in New Hampshire this month. It’s a common refrain.) “She’s now had the benefit of really first-rate support staff,” says Professor Gutin. “She’s got a whole office apparatus there in the East Wing, and they’re gonna do their best to make sure that she doesn’t commit a gaffe that will get them off-message in the campaign.”
That’s not to say she enjoys the experience—certainly not as much as her husband. In Iowa on Wednesday she poignantly remarked that her daughters Sasha and Malia “still think campaigning is fun.” Implying that she doesn’t get to much joy out of the experience, but she’s willing to endure it if it means four more years in the White House.
with additional reporting by R.W. Cramer
This post has been updated since its original publication.
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