Will Americans Accept an Activist First Lady?

Obesity is one thing, gun control is another.


"The Presidency" column appears in U.S. News Weekly.

Michelle Obama may be pushing the limits of what many Americans will accept in an activist first lady.

She is planning a series of events that depart from the politically safe activities for which most first ladies have been known over the years, and experts say this could jeopardize her public standing if she becomes too divisive.

Until recently, Obama had been mostly focused on two uncontroversial initiatives – fighting childhood obesity and generating support for military families.

[READ: Michelle Obama Speaks Out Against Childhood Obesity]

But later this month, she is scheduled to help Democratic Rep. Ed Markey raise money for his Senate bid in Massachusetts. She is also scheduled to join Jason Collins, the NBA player who announced earlier this month he is gay, to help the Democratic Party raise money from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community at a New York fundraiser.

Obama has already entered the political war over firearms by calling for a congressional vote on her husband's gun control bill. She spoke emotionally in April about the shooting death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton in Chicago, Obama's hometown. The girl had attended the president's second inauguration in Washington in January.

"Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her," the first lady told a Chicago luncheon. "But I got to grow up and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School and have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine ... and Hadiya, well, we know that story. She went to a park with some friends and got shot in the back."

"Right now, my husband is fighting as hard as he can and engaging as many people as he can to pass common-sense reforms to protect our children from gun violence," Obama said. "And these reforms deserve a vote in Congress."

[AP: Michelle Obama Honors Military Mothers at Tea]

The legislation, however, later failed in the Senate.

The first lady was less controversial during a signing at the Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., a few weeks back, to promote her book, "American Grown." She talked about the White House garden and the need for good nutrition. And she was a soothing presence when she spoke Wednesday at a White House ceremony honoring 10 of the nation's outstanding libraries and museums.

Overall, Obama told "CBS Sunday Morning" that she's happy the election campaign is over. This takes the political pressure off her and her husband and makes life more pleasant, she said. But she added that it's taken a while for her and her husband to get used to life in the glare of White House publicity.

"You know, I'd love to walk with you out that gate, but it would cause a stir," she told CBS reporter Lee Cowan. "When I make a foray to Target, it's national news. So that stuff had to change. But you know, we are now accustomed to it, and we know how to work within the structure."

[VIEW: Photos of Michelle Obama]

She added, "You learn to appreciate the value of anonymity. And the president and I, you know, we will grow to appreciate that greatly in four years...but we also know the privilege of the platform that we have. I don't take this platform lightly; I try to cherish it and make the most of it every single day."

The first lady used that platform to express relief that three women, missing for a decade, had been found alive last week in Cleveland. Yet Obama edged closer to politics when she told NBC that she admired New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie for his attempt to lose weight. Christie is considered a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2016.

These remarks can be considered polite and gracious rather than political. But it is the hard-edged comments, such as her statements about gun control, that could damage the first lady's favorability ratings. The latest Harris online poll found that two-thirds of Americans approve of her job performance as first lady, a figure that has held steady for many months and is about the same as the approval ratings of her predecessor, Laura Bush. More than 70 percent of Americans said she was a good influence on the president. Where first ladies get into trouble with Americans is when they delve too deeply into politics and policymaking, as critics say Hillary Clinton did during President Bill Clinton's first term when she took charge of an extremely polarizing, and ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to overhaul the health care laws.

[OPINION: The Invented Controversy of Michelle Obama's Oscars Appearance]

If Michelle Obama continues down the path toward America's political battlefields, her favorability ratings could erode, as Hillary Clinton's did in the early and mid-1990s.

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