The first lady is pushing a ban on junk-food ads and trumpeting new nutrition labels -- in addition to doing comedy skits with Jimmy Fallon and Will Ferrell -- as part of a ramped-up schedule for arguably the most popular Democratic woman in Washington.
|"As far as I'm concerned, I'd like her to live on the campaign trail … Nobody can deny that in a lot of places, she can do more good than the president can."|
With President Obama seen as a potential albatross in competitive congressional races, some Democrats are clamoring for the first lady to take a more active role to fend off the GOP effort to take back the Senate.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’d like her to live on the campaign trail,” quipped one veteran Democratic strategist. “Nobody can deny that in a lot of places, she can do more good than the president can.”
It’s a common trend for second-term presidents: the longer they stay in office, the more their popularity drags behind their spouse’s.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 68 percent of Americans approved of Michelle Obama, a figure dwarfing scores for the president.
In comparison, former first lady Hillary Clinton had a 56 percent approval rating and former first lady Laura Bush was at 74 percent at similar points during their husbands' presidencies, Pew found.
Obama is not seen as aggressively political as Clinton, analysts say, but is more involved in pushing White House policy than Bush, her predecessor. And that could make it dangerous for Democrats to involve Obama too heavily in the 2014 midterms, analysts said.
“If Michelle Obama were to clear her calendar and campaign on a weekly basis, she’d look just like a politician,” said Jeremy Mayer, a political scientist at George Mason University. “Her popularity is linked to not being as partisan as her husband.”
In the first lady, the White House sees an advocate who can sound the drum for Obamacare -- and do so in a way that looks less polarizing than the president.
She recently went on "The Tonight Show" and joked that young people needed health insurance because they’re “knuckleheads” likely to get hurt.
And she unveiled new initiatives to combat childhood obesity, long considered her signature cause, and part of the administration’s broader health initiatives.
The first lady called for schools to prohibit all marketing of junk foods and sugary drinks and unveiled an overhaul of nutritional labels.
Though the White House cheered Obama's efforts as part of the reason obesity rates over the last decade have plummeted by 43 percent among 2- to 5-year-olds, some conservatives say the first lady is pushing another big-government solution to problems best left to families.
It also remains to be seen how intensely Obama will campaign for vulnerable incumbents.
Democrats have essentially written off the prospect of winning back the House, and Republicans need a net gain of just six seats to control the Senate.
The White House sees another advantage in deploying the first lady: winning over female voters.
Strategists contend the first lady could deliver a toned-down version of the Democrats’ message that Republicans are waging a “war on women.”
“There’s no better voice for women than the first lady,” the Democratic strategist insisted.
But some Republicans say relying on the first lady to trumpet Obamacare is a play of desperation rather than strength.
“This is indicative of an administration that is running out of surrogates who are comfortable waving the flag of Obamacare,” said GOP strategist Brian Donahue.
“She's been dipping much more than a toe in the water of selling the Affordable Care Act,” he added. “It's a precarious strategy. I'm not really sure how much of a difference she can make.”
Michelle Obama, who shied away from the midterms four years ago, has taken a decidedly different approach this time around. She’s already pumping money into Democratic war chests and has embraced her pivotal role for 2014.
“I know that so many of you may be tired of people always asking you for money, and I understand, because it’s not always easy being one of the ones always asking you,” she said recently in San Francisco.
“But we do this because writing those checks is the single most impactful thing you can do right now to affect the outcomes of the midterms.”