100 Days: Michelle Obama takes the country by storm

McClatchy NewspapersApril 27, 2009 

WASHINGTON — She's wowed Europe, planted a White House organic vegetable garden, is breaking in a new family dog and touring federal agencies to buck up morale on behalf of her husband.

While President Barack Obama dove into a full plate of political issues in his first 100 days in office, Michelle Obama had her hands full, too, settling her young family in Washington while developing her voice and agenda as first lady — perhaps the most highly scrutinized unelected position in the nation's capital.

Incorporating both traditional and non-traditional aspects to the job, Michelle Obama is performing to mostly positive reviews from academics and the public, even Republicans. In doing so, she has quieted — at least for now — critics from last year's presidential campaign who called her unpatriotic, angry and a potentially radical influence on her husband's policies.

"She has kind of taken the country by storm," said Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center, at a breakfast with reporters last week.

In her first 100 days, the Harvard- and Princeton-educated attorney and former Chicago hospital executive has proven even more popular than her husband. A poll last week by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 76 percent of Americans view Michelle Obama favorably, up 8 points from 68 percent in January.

President Obama, in the same Pew survey, had a 73 percent personal popularity rating. The first lady is doing something that her husband isn't: attracting a majority of Republicans.

Michelle Obama is viewed favorably by 60 percent of Republicans, a 14-point jump from 46 percent in January. Among GOP women, her popularity shot up 21 points, to 67 percent from 46 percent. By contrast, Barack Obama has an overall favorability rating among Republicans of 46 percent, according to the Pew poll.

"She's a hybrid," said Barbara Perry, the director of the Center for Civic Renewal at Virginia's Sweet Briar College and the author of "Jacqueline Kennedy: First Lady of the New Frontier."

"She's traditional in not doing a Hillary Clinton or Eleanor Roosevelt (by) picking out substantive political policy," Perry said. "She's not completely traditional based on who she is and her educational background. Yet she maintains some traditional aspects — the elegance and being a fashion icon."

She's engendered bipartisan goodwill, first lady historians say, by focusing on safe topics — improving the lives of U.S. military families, health, and the District of Columbia — and framing them from the perspective of a wife and mother.

"I think she's being slow, steady, smart, prudent and cautious — I think she learned from the campaign" said Robert Watson, the director of American Studies at Florida's Lynn University in Boca Raton. He's also the editor of a report compiled by scholars, authors, former U.S. and state first ladies and given to incoming first ladies to help educate them on the demands and potential pitfalls of the role.

"Military families? That's a sure win given the reports of treatment at Walter Reed (Army Medical Center). She's made herself bulletproof," Watson said.

That's a long way from the 2008 presidential campaign, when critics and Barack Obama's political rivals took potshots at his wife. She drew heavy fire from conservatives in February 2008 when, speaking about the country's thirst for change and her husband's political prospects, told an audience in Wisconsin that "for the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country."

Even Cindy McCain, the wife of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, jabbed at Michelle Obama, telling voters "I have always been proud of my country." Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin wrote that Michelle Obama was a potential liability, calling her Obama's "bitter half."

The Michelle-Obama-as-angry-black-woman theme reached its crescendo in July with a New Yorker magazine cartoon cover depicting the Obamas as a fist-bumping, American flag-burning terrorist couple — he in traditional Muslim garb and she sporting an Angela Davis-style Afro, combat fatigue slack and boots, with an ammunition belt and machine gun slung over her shoulder.

These days, the first lady's smiling graces the covers of Essence, O the Oprah Magazine, People, Vogue, Ebony, Newsweek, and New York magazines, with interviews offering tidbits about life in the White House, adjusting to Washington and raising two children under the public eye.

"She hasn't done anything political," said Myra Gutin, a communications professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., and the author of "Barbara Bush: Presidential Matriarch."

"I think we're still waiting to see which direction she'll go in: traditional, non-traditional. I think she's still testing the waters; still learning; still getting used to her staff."

In an interview in May's edition of Essence, Michelle Obama hints that there's more to come from her.

"We have to talk about flex hours and exercise and nutrition and health and what that means," she said in the interview. "And we have to talk about our relationship with men. All of those are part of the conversation that I think we need to have, not just in this country, but around the world."

Gutin and others said they expect to see Michelle Obama active on the campaign trail next year, capitalizing on her popularity by headlining fundraisers for Democratic congressional candidates.

"Michelle Obama isn't going to be a first lady without a big pet project," Lynn University's Watson said. "She can walk and chew gum at the same time."

METHODOLOGY

The Pew poll was a nationwide telephone survey conducted April 14-21 with 1,507 adults 18 or older. Of the 1,507 respondents, 1,132 were interviewed on landline telephones, 375 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 129 who had no landline phone. The survey was conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates. The poll has an overall margin of error of 3 percentage points. To see the poll go to: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1200/obama-100-days-poll

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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