Michelle Obama plays unique role in campaign

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Campaigning for Barack Obama

Although Michelle Obama has campaigned on her husband's behalf since early in his political career by handshaking and fund-raising, she did not relish the activity at first. When she campaigned during her husband's 2000 run for U.S. House of Representatives, her boss at the University of Chicago asked if there was any single thing about campaigning that she enjoyed; after some thought, she replied visiting so many living rooms had given her some new decorating ideas.

In May 2007, three months after her husband declared his presidential candidacy, she reduced her professional responsibilities by eighty percent to support his presidential campaign. Early in the campaign, she had limited involvement in which she traveled to political events only two days a week and traveled overnight only if their daughters could come along. In early February 2008, she attended thirty-three events in eight days. She has made at least two campaign appearances with Oprah Winfrey. Obama writes her own speeches and speaks without notes.

In 2007, Michelle gave stump speeches for her husband's presidential campaign at various locations in the United States. Jennifer Hunter of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote about one speech of hers in Iowa, "Michelle was a firebrand, expressing a determined passion for her husband's campaign, talking straight from the heart with eloquence and intelligence." She employs an all-female staff of aides for her political role. She says that she negotiated an agreement in which her husband gave up smoking in exchange for her support of his decision to run. About her role in her husband's presidential campaign she has said: "My job is not a senior adviser." During the campaign, she has discussed race and education by using motherhood as a framework.

The presidential campaign was her first exposure to the national political scene and even before the field of Democratic candidates was narrowed to two she was considered the least famous of the candidates' spouses. Early in the campaign, she exhibited her ironic humor and told anecdotes about the Obama family life. However, as the press began to emphasize her sarcasm, which did not translate well in the print media, she toned it down. A New York Times op-ed columnist, Maureen Dowd, wrote:

I wince a bit when Michelle Obamachides her husband as a mere mortal—comic routine that rests on the presumption that we see him as a god ... But it may not be smart politics to mock him in a way that turns him from the glam JFK into the mundane Gerald Ford, toasting his own English muffin. If all Senator Obama is peddling is the Camelot mystique, why debunk this mystique?

Asked in February 2008 whether she could see herself "working to support" Hillary Rodham Clinton if she got the nomination, Michelle Obama said "I'd have to think about that. I'd have to think about policies, her approach, her tone." When questioned about this by the interviewer, however, she stated "You know, everyone in this party is going to work hard for whoever the nominee is."

Despite her criticisms of Clinton during the 2008 campaign, when asked in 2004 which political spouse she admired, Obama cited Hillary Clinton, stating, "She is smart and gracious and everything she appears to be in public—someone who's managed to raise what appears to be a solid, grounded child."

On October 6, 2008 Larry King Live Obama was asked if the American electorate is past the Bradley effect. She stated that Barack's achievement of the nomination was a fairly strong indicator that it is. The same night she also was interviewed by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show where she deflected criticism of her husband and his campaign.Her first Daily Show appearance came after her husband had made three such appearances.

The Obamas enjoy a victory fist bump upon his winning the Democratic nomination.
Obama was involved in two of a trio of references to Barack Obama by Fox News that were controversial. On June 11, 2008 during an interview with conservative columnist Michelle Malkin about whether Michelle Obama had been the target of unfair criticism, the network flashed a chevron that showed the message "Outraged liberals: Stop picking on Obama’s baby mama," which implied that Michelle Obama was not married to the father of her children. Because Barack and Michelle Obama are lawfully married to each other, the network recognized the poor judgment of its own producer in an official statement made to The Politico. Earlier on E. D. Hill's Fox News show America's Pulse, Hill referred to the affectionate fist bump shared by the Obamas on the night that he clinched the Democratic presidential nomination as a "terrorist fist jab." In June 2008, Hill was removed from her duties on the specific show, which was then canceled.

Throughout the campaign, the media often labeled Obama as an "angry black woman," and some websites attempted to propagate this perception, causing her to respond: "Barack and I have been in the public eye for many years now, and we've developed a thick skin along the way. When you’re out campaigning, there will always be criticism. I just take it in stride, and at the end of the day, I know that it comes with the territory."By the time of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in August, media outlets observed Obama's presence on the campaign trail had grown softer than at the start of the race, focusing on soliciting concerns and empathizing with the audience rather than throwing down challenges to them, and giving interviews to shows like The View and publications like Ladies' Home Journal rather than appearing on news programs. The change was even reflected in her fashion choices, with Obama wearing more and more sundresses in place of her previous designer pieces. The View appearance was partly intended to help soften the perception of her,and it was widely-covered in the press.

Criticism for "For the first time in my life" comments

On February 18, 2008, Obama commented in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." Later that evening she reworded her stump speech in Madison, Wisconsin, saying "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change." Several commentators criticized her remarks,and the campaign issued a statement that "anyone who heard her remarks ... would understand that she was commenting on our politics." In June 2008, First Lady Laura Bush commented on Michelle Obama's words, indicating that they had been misrepresented in the media: "I think she probably meant I'm 'more proud,' you know, is what she really meant," adding, "I mean, I know that, and that's one of the things you learn and that's one of the really difficult parts both of running for president and for being the spouse of the president, and that is, everything you say is looked at and in many cases misconstrued."

2008 Democratic National Convention speech

Michelle Obama was regarded as a charismatic public speaker from the very beginning of the campaign. She delivered the keynote address on the first night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention on August 25, during which she sought to portray herself and her family as the embodiment of the American Dream. Other speakers that night included Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Edward Kennedy, who some expected to steal the limelight. She described Barack as a family man and herself as no different from many women; she also spoke about the backgrounds that she and her husband came from. Obama said both she and her husband believed "that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond, and you do what you say you're going to do, that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them."She also emphasized her love of country, in response to criticism for her previous statements about feeling proud of her country for the first time. Her daughters joined her on the stage after the speech and greeted their father, who appeared on the overhead video screen.

speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention

Obama's speech was largely well received and drew mostly positive reviews.A Rasmussen Reports poll found that her favorability among Americans reached 55%.Political commentator Andrew Sullivan described the speech as "one of the best, most moving, intimate, rousing, humble, and beautiful speeches I've heard from a convention platform." Ezra Klein of The American Prospect, described it as a "beautifully delivered, and smartly crafted, speech"and described Obama as "coming off as wholesome and, frankly, familiar." One U.S.News & World Report commentator described her speech as one that embraced the crowd and that put Obama in her element.Meanwhile, another noted that the speech presented a formidable case for the Obamas as an All-American first family.Arianna Huffington and Howard Wolfson both lauded the speech. The speech made Juan Williams tear up over the thought of the significance of her presentation as a representative of Black America. Slate's Dahlia Lithwick described the speech as fearless for bringing family issues to the forefront.Chris Cillizza wrote at The Fix, a political blog from The Washington Post, that the speech helped America relate to the Obamas.

The speech had its detractors. Katherine Marsh of The New Republic, however, said she missed "the old Michelle ... not the Stepford wife fist-bumping Elisabeth Hasselbeck, but the sassy better half who reminded us that while Barack was the answer, he was also stinky in the morning and forgot to put the butter away. She both affirmed his promise and humanized him." Jason Zengerle, also of The New Republic, said Obama should have emphasized her professional and educational achievements as well as her mother, daughter and sister qualities; Zengerle wrote, "It almost makes you long for the days when politicians' wives were seen but not heard. After all, if they're not permitted to really say anything, what's the point of having them speak." National Review also had a host of articles that pointed out negative aspects of the speech while noting praiseworthy points. One derided "Isn't She Lovely", the musical selection used following the speech as she walked off the stage with her daughters, even though it praised her speech and wardrobe. Another by Amy Holmes led with the fact that Karl Rove felt the speech was impersonal, although it compared favorably to speeches by Karenna Gore and Teresa Heinz-Kerry at previous DNCs. A pair of articles, including one by Byron York, noted that although the speech presented America as the land of opportunity, it conflicted with her campaign trail speeches that described dark aspects of the country.Despite all these articles, National Review editor Rich Lowry summarized why he felt the speech was a success.


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