First ladies are always the subject of fascination. Their experiences often illustrate the evolving roles of women in our society, and they are usually an essential part of the governing team at the White House. Most first ladies have taken on special projects that reflect their core values, such as highway beautification for Lady Bird Johnson and the promotion of reading for Laura Bush. Michelle Obama is emulating her predecessors, with a difference. Her signature initiative—improving the lives of military families—has become a personal mission and an emotional cause.
A year ago, Mrs. Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer, was one of the most controversial figures in public life, and not in a good way. Her remarks about how her husband's political success had finally made her proud of her country offended many Americans who thought she wasn't patriotic enough. Campaign aides tried to contain the damage, arguing that she meant to say she was finally proud of the political system and was always proud of America, but many voters were put off.
Today's Michelle Obama has become what a senior Democratic strategist calls "a superstar." Sixty-three percent of Americans have a positive view of her, with 43 percent "very positive" and only 8 percent negative. These favorability ratings have been increasing steadily as Americans have gotten to know her. In March 2008, her positive rating was only 32 percent, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. "She's really opened up to the public," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, "and the American people have embraced her. On a very human level, they relate to her as a great mom and as someone who is strong and smart and very caring."
Her outreach to the military is an important part of her appeal, partly because it was unexpected and has important political implications. "It's so counterintuitive of the notion that Democrats are antimilitary," says historian Richard Norton Smith. "What better way to display pride in your country than by honoring those who wear the uniform and who have suffered in the service of their country?" Smith adds that, while he doesn't doubt Mrs. Obama's sincerity, "you can be sincere and shrewd at the same time."
Over the past year, Mrs. Obama has become increasingly committed to bonding with service families. Among her stops during the campaign, for example, were visits with Army spouses in Fayetteville, N.C., near Fort Bragg. Aides say she has been moved to tears by the stories of sacrifice she has heard, but the events are normally closed to the media, so the public doesn't get to see these emotional scenes. She has invited military spouses and their families to events in Washington, including having Shannon Kendall of Georgetown, Texas, and her husband, Maj. Ryan Kendall, an Iraq veteran, join her at President Obama's recent address to a joint session of Congress.
On March 12, she visited Fayetteville again and met with two dozen members of military families. "As my husband, the president, said recently in his address at Camp Lejeune," the first lady noted, "service doesn't end with the person wearing the uniform; the war doesn't end when a soldier returns home. Military family members have their own special courage and strength." She stopped at the Prager Child Development Center at Fort Bragg, where she read The Cat in the Hat to a dozen preschoolers. She also chatted with four toddlers who were making thank-you cards for wounded soldiers.
But what moved her the most were the individual stories, such as the one from a woman who said that while her husband was on several high-risk deployments, she used food stamps to get by. "That's not right or fair," Mrs. Obama told aides later.
This was one more incident that intensified her desire to push for increases in military pay and benefits. The Obama budget, in fact, calls for a 2.9 percent pay raise in 2010 and a major budget increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs. But the administration came under fire from veterans groups this week over a money-saving proposal to bill veterans' private insurers for treatment of service-related disabilities or illnesses now covered by the VA system. Acting quickly, President Obama dropped the plan. She also realizes that not only do military spouses juggle work and children, as so many other parents do, but their partners are often on duty in faraway places and can't lend a hand at home. So such families need all the outside support they can get, Mrs. Obama has concluded.
Meeting with military folks will be a big part of Michelle Obama's schedule for the remainder of her time as first lady, her staff says. And she has promised to report back to her husband regularly on what she learns. That will give military families a very powerful advocate in the court of public opinion and inside the White House.