Michelle Obama May Stay 'Above The Fray' As She Returns To Political Life

Apr 17, 2020
Originally published on April 20, 2020 8:06 am

On a recent Saturday night, tens of thousands of people joined a nine-hour virtual dance party on Instagram Live that was hosted by DJ D-Nice. Some familiar big names have been dropping into what he calls "Club Quarantine," like John Legend, Joe Biden and Mark Zuckerberg.

But it was the appearance of former first lady Michelle Obama that seemed to have a big impact.

"Oh my gosh. Michelle Obama's in here," D-Nice exclaimed as Obama's appearance brought the music to a brief stop. "Yo, I swear, I don't even know who to play right now. My mind's completely blown."

That moment, which reverberated across social media as millions of Americans are sheltering at home, was a reminder of the power and popularity of Michelle Obama, who is stepping back into politics as she promotes her own voting initiative.

Last week, Obama announced her support for greater access to voting by mail, early in-person voting and online voter registration, calling these options "critical steps for this moment."

"Americans should never have to choose between making their voices heard and keeping themselves and their families safe," she said in a statement released by When We All Vote, the group she launched in 2018.

Though the group is nonpartisan, the effort is Obama's most high-profile political activity since leaving the White House in early 2017. And her announcement comes with the issue elevated after the controversy over Wisconsin holding a vote this month under a statewide order for residents to stay home. President Trump is also expressing outspoken opposition to mail-in voting.

On Monday, Obama will kick off a virtual "couch party" for When We All Vote, encouraging participants to register to vote and learn how to cast their ballots in upcoming elections. During the group's first couch party, hosted by D-Nice, the group says it reached more than 400,000 eligible voters.

"I think that at this moment she's going to focus on When We All Vote," said Susan Sher, who has known Obama for decades and served as her chief of staff at the beginning of President Barack Obama's administration. "Particularly in light of the COVID-19 virus — and everyone saw those pictures of people in Wisconsin who were risking their own safety and health in order to vote — I think it's even more important, and she appreciates how important it is to the actual election."

While Obama's current work is focused on voter turnout, she remains one of the most sought-after surrogates on the campaign trail, with sky-high approval ratings that cut across party lines.

"Michelle Obama is one of the most popular women in the country," said Christine Matthews, who is a Republican pollster. "Every first lady or former first lady has a partisan aspect to their popularity. But Michelle Obama is actually fairly popular among Republican women."

Michelle Obama reacts as Kaitlyn Saunders, 8, tells Obama that she is a competitive figure skater. Kaitlyn and her mother, Katrice Saunders, were buying signed copies of Obama's memoir, Becoming, last year at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP

When and whether she will be a regular surrogate in 2020 on behalf of former Vice President Joe Biden remains unknown. Her husband, former President Barack Obama, endorsed Biden this week. While those close to her say that Michelle Obama "of course" supports Biden's campaign, she has not yet come off the sidelines, though an eventual endorsement is anticipated.

Sher said that she assumes Obama isn't "thinking about it like a politician" but that "it's clear she supports him and will support him."

"Whatever she does, she will be above the fray," said Sher. "That isn't to say that she isn't supporting Vice President Biden. She obviously is, but she will do it — and I know her — she will do it in a way that is positive."

Obama has spoken openly about her attempts to persuade her husband not to seek the presidency and was once reluctant to engage in partisan politics. But even in those early days, she forged a connection with voters.

Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic strategist who advised Michelle Obama, recalled the nickname that Barack Obama's aides had for her during his 2008 campaign: the closer.

"She was the real motivator for people to come out and caucus in Iowa for Barack Obama, and that's a key role that she plays in elections," Cutter said. "She knows how to inspire and motivate and relate with the people she's speaking with."

John Brabender, a veteran Republican strategist, said that "suburban women in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Michigan" could be one of the defined audiences, along with black voters, that Obama could target in this election.

"We do know that the president's campaign is making a very aggressive effort to get a historic African American vote," Brabender said. "And there have been some positive signs for the president that he's overperforming among African Americans versus previous [GOP] presidential candidates. And so I think that's an audience that certainly the Democrats are going to want Michelle Obama to spend some time talking to."

During President Obama's time in office, Michelle Obama kept a limited political schedule, appearing at political events only when she believed her presence could have a big impact.

"Everything she did, she challenged us as her staff to say, 'Why is this a good use of my time?' " said Tina Tchen, the president of Time's Up Now, who previously served as Michelle Obama's chief of staff. "And it was always a challenge to make sure it was something she was personally, authentically passionate about. If it wasn't, she wouldn't say it. If it's not something she believed in, that's not something she would go out and say. And I think the American people responded to that — they know that about her."

Obama was a breakout star of the 2016 campaign and one of the most popular surrogates lending her credibility and reputation for authenticity to candidate Hillary Clinton's cause, though Obama has never had much affection for the campaign trail. Her explicitly political appearances have been limited in scope, to the dismay of some Democrats.

But she has been in the public eye, on her own terms. She packed arenas with throngs of fans as she promoted her memoir, Becoming, which was released in 2018, and has made a number of high-profile speeches and appearances.

"The kind of surrogacy that Michelle Obama brings is unprecedented. People don't see her as a political figure — they see her as a beloved former first lady who they completely relate with," said Cutter.

Obama is also a larger-than-life presence on social media, with more than 37 million followers on Instagram, which could make her a potentially desirable — and effective — surrogate as campaigning and advocacy work have largely moved online.

"She has been a huge presence, and I laugh about that because I can remember being in the White House where we weren't sure Twitter was something the first lady of the United States ought to be on, back in the beginning of the platform, " said Tchen, who is now on the board of When We All Vote.

Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, an organization dedicated to mobilizing women of color, said that Obama's "encouragement of high voter turnout" is more valuable than any one endorsement.

"She's so, so important and such a respected, trusted voice for Democrats across the whole spectrum," Allison said, adding that voter mobilization could be critical for Democrats looking to close the gap in key battleground states.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Former first lady Michelle Obama is stepping back into politics. She's promoting an effort to drive voter turnout. The big question is what role she'll play in the campaign between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Here's NPR's Juana Summers.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: On a recent Saturday night, tens of thousands of people joined a nine-hour virtual dance party on Instagram Live hosted by DJ D-Nice. Some familiar names have been dropping into Club Quarantine, like John Legend, Joe Biden and Mark Zuckerberg. But that was nothing compared to when Michelle Obama showed up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DJ D-NICE: Oh, my gosh. Michelle Obama's in here. Michelle Obama's in here.

SUMMERS: It was a reminder of Obama's influence and popularity, something she's now putting behind the cause of increasing voter turnout. Last week, she announced her support for greater access to voting by mail, early in-person voting and online voter registration, calling these options critical steps for this moment. Susan Sher was the first lady's chief of staff at the beginning of the Obama administration.

SUSAN SHER: At this moment, she's going to focus on When We All Vote because, particularly in light of the COVID-19 virus, everyone saw those pictures of people in Wisconsin who were risking their own safety and health in order to vote. I think it's even more important, and she appreciates how important it is.

SUMMERS: Michelle Obama launched When We All Vote in 2018. The nonpartisan group is the most high-profile political effort she's made since her family left the White House. Christine Matthews is a Republican pollster. She says that Michelle Obama is particularly popular among African Americans and women.

CHRISTINE MATTHEWS: Every first lady or former first lady has a partisan aspect to their popularity. But Michelle Obama is actually fairly popular among Republican women.

SUMMERS: Matthews says it helps that Obama's role has not been overly political. That's something that those who know her say isn't likely to change in 2020, even with former Vice President Joe Biden on the ballot. Stephanie Cutter is a Democratic strategist who advised Michelle Obama.

STEPHANIE CUTTER: The kind of surrogacy that Michelle Obama brings is unprecedented. People don't see her as a political figure. They see her as a beloved former first lady who they completely relate with.

SUMMERS: Former President Barack Obama endorsed Biden last week. While those close to her say that Michelle Obama, of course, supports Biden's campaign, she has yet to endorse, herself. Susan Sher.

SHER: Whatever she does, she will be above the fray. And that isn't to say that she isn't supporting Vice President Biden. She obviously is. But she will do it in a way that is positive.

SUMMERS: Aimee Allison is the founder of She the People, a group focused on mobilizing women of color.

AIMEE ALLISON: Michelle Obama's endorsement of Joe Biden isn't as critical as Michelle Obama's encouragement of high voter turnout. (Laughter) She's exactly positioned where she needs to be to actually win the White House.

SUMMERS: Michelle Obama's popularity, coupled with her digital footprint, makes her a desirable surrogate for a time when campaigning and advocacy work is all moving online. On Instagram alone, she has more than 37 million followers. Tina Tchen also served as Obama's chief of staff and is the president of Time's Up Now. She says Obama brings an authenticity to social media that motivates people.

TINA TCHEN: She has been a huge presence. And I laugh about that because I can remember being in the White House in an era where we weren't so sure Twitter was something the first lady of the United States ought to be on (laughter).

SUMMERS: After she dropped into Club Quarantine, DJ D-Nice hosted a couch party for Michelle Obama's voting group. When We All Vote says it reached more than 400,000 eligible voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D-NICE: Mrs. Obama is in here. We love you. We love you. We love you.

SUMMERS: And at the next couch party later tonight, the group says that Michelle Obama will kick things off herself.

Juana Summers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA'S "ROOTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.