What's the case against Michelle Obama starting a political career of her own? It starts and ends with the fact that she doesn't want one. But what if she changes her mind? The first lady has three important things for a future in politics: the popularity, the skills, and the opportunity. (We'll get to "the will" later.) Here's the case for her taking her turn on the ballot:
People love her. Aside from her husband and Hillary Clinton, the first lady is the biggest rock star in the Democratic Party. Her approval rating, at 69 percent, is higher than her husband's. But more tellingly, it's more than 20 points higher than Hillary Clinton's was in 1996. Clinton was elected to the Senate four years later. And while Clinton was a sympathetic figure because of her rocky marriage, Obama is popular because of her "aspirational" marriage, in the words of campaign photographer Scout Tufankjian. She took the photo of the Obamas hugging that became the most-liked Facebook photo ever. Tfankijan told Slate that she was fully aware the photos popularity wasn't about her composition, but about "how people feel about the Obamas."
She has the skills. Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention was very well-received. The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan ran out of adjectives to describe how good it was. ("Stunning, brilliant, moving, passionate and right. Flawless. That was a speech a presidential nominee would be proud to have given.")
When TV Guide speculated about what Obama might do if her husband lost, the leading theory was that she'd be some kind of TV talk show host:
“Personally I want to see her in the White House,” says Hillary Estey McLaughlin, president of Telepictures Productions, the syndication company behind the Ellen DeGeneres Show. “But if she were not going to be in the White House, I’d love to have her as the host of a show. She’s amazing...She reminds me of Oprah Winfrey, as someone who has the ability to make people understand complex things in a simple way.”
Obama could use her ability to "make people understand complex things in a simple way" to help moms with troubled teens, or she could explain public policy to the masses.
She has the opportunity. No one thinks she can or would run to replace her husband in 2016. But if she wanted to launch a political caree, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois will be up for re-election in 2016. Obama wouldn't face the attacks Clinton did during her race for Senate in New York in 2000, while her husband was still President, that she was an opportunistic carpetbagger. Obama was born and raised in Chicago. John McLaughlin, the shouting host of The McLaughlin Group thinks Obama will do so, thus "duplicating the career of Hillary Clinton." Politico's Charles Mahtesian points out that if 2016 is too soon, there's always 2020, when Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin comes up for reelection. He'd be 75 years old by then. Obama is only 48 now, so she'd be just 56 in 2020.
What about the will to do it? This is the only case people make against Obama's potential political career. Salon's Alex Pareene says, sarcastically, "a minor problem that she has never evinced any interest in running for public office." Jodi Kantor, author of The Obamas, says she'll eat her book if the first lady runs. But guess what? People said that about Hillary Clinton, too. In February 1999, The Wall Street Journal's John Fund wrote that Clinton "isn't likely to succumb to media calls for her candidacy, but she may be tempted... [S]he is in an awkward position from which she may find it difficult to transfer her public popularity into meaningful power." Bill Clinton's chief of staff while he was governor, Betsey Wright, said there was no way in an interview with Northwest Arkansas Times: "I can't imagine that in the end she would want to run for elective office and go back and work in Washington, D.C. I don't think she is that much of a sadist — I mean a masochist. That was a really bad slip. I don't want her limited by being in the Senate." Clinton announced an exploratory committee in July 1999.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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