By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-24-08
Where is Michelle Obama? Since the Democratic nominee’s wife delivered her warm, charming, effective address at the Democratic National Convention, she has remained remarkably low profile. The Obama campaign has used her sparingly and – to the Democrats’ good fortune – she has triggered no controversy. This quiet is a remarkable contrast to the tumult that surrounded her during Barack Obama’s primary campaign. It reflects some of the particular dynamics surrounding the Obama partnership in private and in public. But Michelle Obama’s demeanor also reflects the broader strategy in the Democratic campaign this fall. If Barack Obama wins on November 4, it will feel more like a victory by default than a sweeping mandate for change.
When Barack Obama first emerged as a serious presidential contender, his wife Michelle had an important, if reluctant, role in the narrative. For a politician who was triggering near messianic fervor, she was the reality check, proof that he put his socks on one foot at a time, like the rest of us mortals. It was a role she seemed to relish – and took a little too far. Her comments about her “stinky, snorey” husband in the marital bed triggered collective shouts of “TMI” – too much information. They were far too reminiscent of both Clintons at their worst, combining Hillary Clinton’s occasional flashes of anger about her husband’s tomcatting with Bill Clinton’s willingness to answer the undignified question posed to him as president, “Do you wear boxers or briefs?” Still, Mrs. Obama did what candidate spouses have done for decades. She helped humanize her husband. Michelle Obama filled out the profile of Barack Obama as a regular guy with two adorable children and a smart, capable, if occasionally neglected wife.
As the primary campaign heated up and became a two-person struggle pitting Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama’s role expanded. Bill Clinton’s controversial involvement in his wife’s race helped shine the spotlight on Barack Obama’s spouse. Michelle Obama’s now infamous comment that her husband’s rise made her proud to be an American for the first time in her life hurt the Obama effort. Although Mrs. Obama’s gaffe was less destructive than Mr. Clinton’s egocentric, race-baiting antics, the comment played into the Clinton narrative that the Obamas were unpatriotic, supercilious, elitists, privileged Ivy League types bashing America while enjoying her bounty. Well aware of how much Hillary Clinton’s frankness detracted from Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992, the Obama campaign sought to reposition and then silence Mrs. Obama.
The effort has largely succeeded. In her convention tour de force, Michelle Obama used her life story to normalize her husband’s biography. Her stories of local Chicago girl made good helped tailor Barack Obama’s less conventional biography to fit the more classic contours of the American dream. Her delivery was as good as her content, and she came across as warm, supportive, accomplished but not threatening – not an easy task given the many racist and sexist stereotypes she must overcome.
Since then, it has been relatively quiet on the Obama home front. Barack Obama did one round of interviews with his daughters, which he immediately regretted. Michelle Obama has dutifully accompanied her husband when necessary, but even Cindy McCain has generated more national attention. More broadly, the Sarah Palin phenomenon has been the distaff story of this campaign. It seems that Americans – or journalists – have a limited quota of attention they will pay to women during a campaign, and both potential First Ladies seem to have had less scrutiny than usual, partially because of all the Palin controversies.
Michelle Obama’s passivity is also a reflection of the relatively subdued campaign Barack Obama has run — to his great benefit. In many ways, since the convention, he has shifted gears. The flamboyant, exciting, “yes we can” candidate of last spring has become the calm, unruffled, cool customer of today. Since the financial meltdown, Obama has – publicly – taken the lead by default. He has let John McCain stumble more than anything else. At the same, Obama has run a brilliant ground game, raising money prodigiously, and organizing his ground troops. The upside is that it just may win him the presidency, as people’s perceptions of his maturity and readiness to be chief executive have grown. The downside is that he is smoothly gliding his way toward the White House rather than taking it by storm. If he wins, he will need to work harder during the transition to shape – or even retroactively create – a mandate.