Michelle Obama Risks Her Popularity

Taking on a heckler could undermine her favorability.

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(Molly Riley/AP)
President Barack Obama right, and first lady Michelle Obama greet visitors to Section 60 on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, Monday, May 27, 2013. Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are buried in Section 60. (Molly Riley/AP)

First lady Michelle Obama is a popular public figure, but she is learning that wading into divisive political debates can be unpleasant and can run the risk of further alienating people who disagree with her or with her husband.

This was the lesson of the heckling incident that the first lady endured late Tuesday. She was giving a speech at a Democratic fund-raiser in Washington and was interrupted by a woman who complained loudly that President Obama has not signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians working for federal contractors.

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Heckling the president is not uncommon, and President Obama generally handles such situations calmly and without getting flustered. But the first lady seemed taken aback when Ellen Sturtz, a lesbian activist, shouted that President Obama should sign the executive order, which he had promised to do during his 2008 campaign.

Mrs. Obama stopped her prepared remarks and said, "One of the things I don't do well is this, do you understand?" She moved away from the podium to talk to the heckler directly, and said if Sturtz didn't quiet down, the first lady would leave the event. Members of the audience urged Mrs. Obama to stay and the heckler was escorted out. It was a rare display of pique by the first lady.

 

Not surprisingly, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Michelle Obama handled the incident "brilliantly."

It wasn't the first time that a first lady had been confronted by critics at a public event. One of the most vivid examples came in 1968 when Lady Bird Johnson was hosting a White House luncheon. She asked Eartha Kitt, a singer and actress, for her views on the Vietnam war, which was causing many young Americans to turn against President Lyndon Johnson. Kitt said, "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot." Mrs. Johnson broke into tears.

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In 1964, Mrs. Johnson, touring the South, faced hostile crowds of people who opposed her husband's support for civil-rights legislation.

In 1994, first lady Hillary Clinton was booed while giving a speech in Seattle on health-care reform, an initiative that her husband, President Bill Clinton, placed under her direction. The measure eventually failed in Congress.

Two-thirds of Americans approve of the job Michelle Obama is doing as first lady, according to a recent Harris online poll. President Obama's job approval rating is about 50 percent or a bit lower.

First ladies generally enjoy high approval ratings as long as they focus on noncontroversial projects. But Michelle Obama has been venturing into political territory of late, urging support for gun control and speaking at Democratic fundraisers. This advocacy could erode her popularity over time.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.