Michelle Obama had to convince voters four years ago in Denver that her husband was ready to be president, was like them even with his “funny name” and was a man who respected women, never mind his bruising primary fight with Hillary Clinton.
Tonight, she has a more urgent task at the Democratic National Convention: persuade them to give him more time to finish the job.
“It’s an opportunity for the first lady to share with the country from her own very unique vantage point why she believes her husband deserves a second term,” Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser and longtime friend of the Obamas, said in an interview ahead of the convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“It is an opportunity to remind folks about who he is, what drives him, what motivates him, what he has accomplished and what he still intends to accomplish and why,” said Jarrett, who has read the speech. “Her speech is one that will touch the hearts of every American, regardless of party, regardless of geography. It is a personal speech that will resonate very broadly.”
The first lady, who will speak after 10 p.m., must help energize the Democratic base, which polls show is less enthusiastic than four years ago during President Barack Obama’s historic White House bid.
Courting the Base
Michelle Obama’s convention schedule outlines such an effort. In the days after her speech, she’ll appear before the Hispanic caucus, the women’s caucus and a gathering to honor gay and lesbian elected officials. She’ll also work on a service project for military families.
Unlike Hillary Clinton, who as first lady took on the politically contentious cause of a health-care overhaul in President Bill Clinton’s first term, Obama has made supporting the nation’s troops and reducing childhood obesity her top public priorities. Those choices have proven to be shrewd, giving her allies nationwide, including in battleground states with large military populations like Virginia.
Just as Ann Romney did at last week’s Republican National Convention, Michelle Obama, 48, is capable of displaying the same pull-on-their-heartstrings appeal and stand-by-your-man commitment.
“Michelle Obama and Ann Romney are more equally matched on the campaign trail than we have had in a long time,” said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames.
The last time nominees’ spouses were as closely matched as strong campaign surrogates was in 1996, featuring Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole, Bystrom said.
When she was new to the national stage in 2008, Michelle Obama generated controversy for saying that for the first time in her adult life she was “really proud of my country.” Since entering the White House, she has become more careful in her public remarks and sometimes uses a teleprompter.
A lawyer like her husband, Michelle Obama has a crisp speaking style and her storytelling more often draws on everyday life.
In tonight’s speech, “she’ll talk about the president’s deep connection to the struggles middle-class families are facing because he’s lived it, and why he’s made the choices he’s made,” campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters traveling with Obama to a speech today in Norfolk, Virginia.
The first lady has been the headliner at 79 fundraisers and 24 rallies so far this election season, according to a log of her travels maintained by the Obama campaign.
Katie McCormick Lelyveld, a Chicago native who worked as Michelle Obama’s press secretary during the 2008 campaign and for her in the White House, described her former boss as more of a perfectionist than a fierce competitor like her husband.
Still, she brings intensity to the campaign trail.
“If she takes something on, she wants to do it the best it can be done,” she said. “If she is going to get out there, she wants to pack her day and reach as many people as possible.”
During the 2008 campaign, Michelle Obama came to be known as “the closer” among aides because of her ability to close the deal with voters. She often followed up in communities her husband had visited, meeting with voters in a more intimate setting.
“She’s all in,” Jarrett said. “She believes the stakes are really high in this election, that the choice is stark and that she’s really concerned about not just her life, but the lives of her children and grandchildren.”
Throughout their time in the White House, Michelle Obama has been more popular than her husband. In an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted Aug. 16-20, she was viewed favorably by 64 percent of adults, compared with 53 percent for her husband.
She’ll also work to boost her husband’s standing with women, who represent 52 percent of the U.S. electorate. The president has an 8 percentage-point advantage among the critical voting group, according to Gallup Daily tracking polls July 30 through Aug. 19.
That gender gap received renewed attention after Todd Akin, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Missouri, said Aug. 19 in a television interview that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy and so abortion shouldn’t be allowed in rape cases. As Akin apologized, Democrats worked to keep the storm alive and further damage Romney’s standing with women.
Carmen Fields, a Democratic delegate from Needham, Massachusetts, said Michelle Obama has gone “beyond” her expectations as a first lady. Fields said she expects this speech will be easier for her to give than the one four years ago, in part because Michelle Obama can emphasize what the president has done.
“He has a significant record of accomplishments that can be pointed to,” Fields said.