Michelle Obama returned to campaigning for the first time since her husband’s election in an effort to raise money for embattled Democratic candidates and enthusiasm from the party’s voter base.
The first lady said Democrats in the November congressional elections must rally to “finish what we’ve started.”
“Here is something that I asked you all when I was on the campaign trail, I asked you all to make sure you had my husband’s back, right?” she said yesterday at a fundraiser for Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold in Milwaukee. “He cannot do this alone. He needs strong leaders like Russ to help him.”
She carried the same message later to supporters in her hometown of Chicago at an event for Alexi Giannoulias, who is in a close contest with Republican U.S. Representative Mark Kirk to fill the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois formerly held by her husband.
The first lady’s travel schedule, along with that of the president, provides a road map of the races that the White House is focusing on in the final weeks before the Nov. 2 elections.
The six Senate candidates Michelle Obama is stumping for -- in Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado, Ohio, Connecticut, Washington and California -- are on the nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s list of the 11 closest races in the country. Over the next nine days the president is scheduled to be in Delaware, Ohio, California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada. Barack and Michelle Obama will appear together Oct. 17 in Ohio, a key swing state. Vice President Joe Biden also is on the road for Democrats, covering 27 cities in 17 states in the last month alone.
In contrast to the attacks on Republicans that the president delivers at his campaign stops, the first lady took a softer approach in her speeches yesterday.
“Like every parent I know my girls, my children, are at the center of my world and my hopes for their future are at the heart of every single thing that I do,” she told about 700 people who paid between $250 and $500 each to attend. “I come to this stuff more as a mom.”
At the Chicago fundraiser for Giannoulias, where about donors paid amounts from $500 a person to $10,000 a couple, Obama, 46, told her audience that “we all want to leave something better for our children.”
The message resonated with Tia Johnson, a stay-at-home mother of two young children who lives in Beloit, Wisconsin.
“Before I had children I was not much concerned about politics,” she said. “Being a mother, and seeing what my kids are dealing with in school, thinking about the economy and the future, it changes you.”
The first lady also promoted her husband’s victories including the health care overhaul, financial regulatory reform, investments in clean energy and tax cuts for small businesses. Still, she said she recognized voters are angry about the economy.
“Barack knows that too many folks are out of work right now, and too many paychecks don’t stretch to cover the bills,” she said in Milwaukee.
“I know that for a lot of folks, change hasn’t come fast enough,” she said. “And believe me, it hasn’t come fast enough for Barack, or for Russ either.”
She encouraged people to be patient and told them that “it’s going to take a longer time to dig ourselves out of this hole than any of us would like.”
The first lady also encouraged supporters to take advantage of opportunities for early voting, saying she plans to cast her ballot today.
Ari Fleischer, former President George W. Bush’s first press secretary, said the president’s wife has plays a particular role in campaigns.
“First ladies tend to be beloved; they don’t tend to come with a lot of political negatives that get attached to their husbands,” Fleischer said. “They’re great for rallying the base and raising money, but they don’t influence voter behavior.”
In a Bloomberg National Poll conducted Oct. 7-10, Michelle Obama outshined her husband among voters. Sixty-two percent viewed her favorably, compared with 53 percent who said they had a favorable view of the president.
Peggy Heyrman, 27-year-old attorney in Milwaukee who was attending the Feingold fundraiser, said the first lady “is good at reaching young voters.”
“She’s personable, and I think she presents her ideas very clearly and concisely,” Heyrman said.
Michelle Obama is sticking to states her husband won in 2008, including Colorado today to raise money for Senator Michael Bennet; Connecticut, where she’ll be Oct. 18 on behalf of Senate candidate Dick Blumenthal; Washington, which she visits Oct. 25 to campaign for Senator Patty Murray, and California, where she campaigns for Senator Barbara Boxer on Oct. 26 and 27.
In competitive states it makes sense to flood the market, said Jonathan Mantz, who was Hillary Clinton’s national finance director during her presidential campaign.
“You could probably get two bites of the apple sending her as well as Biden as well as Obama,” he said.
Mantz said Michelle Obama can rally Democratic activists and the “Obama faithful” and bring out women donors and activists.