From Reluctant Political Spouse To Pop Culture Icon: Michelle Obama

Jul 25, 2016
Originally published on July 25, 2016 3:51 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Michelle Obama will speak at the Democratic Convention tonight for the third and perhaps final time. The first lady's approval ratings have consistently been over 60 percent during Barack Obama's presidency. Her popular image is a big change from how she was first introduced to the country eight years ago. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: From the get-go, Michelle Obama was the reluctant political spouse.

PETER SLEVIN: She was not thrilled from the very beginning about Barack Obama's political career. I mean, this goes back to when he was an Illinois state senator.

KHALID: That's Peter Slevin. He's the author of a biography about the first lady. But Slevin says that once Michelle Obama jumped into the political ring, she had a natural knack for connecting with voters.

SLEVIN: The description that so many people use about her is authenticity. You always have a feeling that when you ask Michelle Obama a direct question, you will get a direct answer.

KHALID: But that authenticity got her into hot water in February 2008. She was talking to voters at a campaign event in Wisconsin.

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MICHELLE OBAMA: Let me tell you something. For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country.

KHALID: Again, Peter Slevin.

SLEVIN: Half the country knew exactly what Michelle Obama was saying and didn't think very much of it. But it's unquestionable that what she said made the Obama campaign nervous. And very quickly she was caricatured in some quarters as an angry black woman.

KHALID: On the eve of the 2008 convention, polling showed less than 40 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of her. Some disliked her, but a lot of folks just didn't know who she was. Stephanie Cutter was brought in to help introduce her.

STEPHANIE CUTTER: She has a relatability that few people have.

KHALID: Cutter was the first lady's chief of staff at that time and a long-time Democratic strategist.

CUTTER: We knew that the convention in 2008 was the best opportunity to present Michelle Obama to the American people without anybody else's filter put on it. It was an unfiltered opportunity.

KHALID: And so as Michelle Obama took the stage in Denver at the Democratic National Convention, she had a mission to win over the skeptics by sharing her personal story.

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OBAMA: How this time in this great country where a girl from the South Side of Chicago can go to college and law school, and the son of a single mother from Hawaii can go all the way to the White House.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: And we committed ourselves.

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OBAMA: We committed ourselves to building the world as it should be.

KHALID: That speech was a resounding success. Before Obama's presidency, Michelle Obama was a high-powered hospital exec. During her husband's presidency, she largely remained apolitical. Her public role focused on supporting military families and reducing childhood obesity. Peter Slevin says with time she has become more confident, and with confidence comes candor.

SLEVIN: I think she's come full circle. I think she's felt liberated to talk more openly about race and class.

KHALID: As her husband's presidency nears its end, she has opened up about the challenges of being the country's first African-American first lady. Here she is talking to the graduating class at the historically black Tuskegee University last year.

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OBAMA: I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations, conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud or too angry or too emasculating?

KHALID: She talked about how it felt to be mocked on the cover of The New Yorker.

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OBAMA: It was a cartoon drawing of me with a huge afro and a machine gun. Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I'm really being honest, that knocked me back a bit.

KHALID: As Michelle Obama steps onto the stage tonight, she no longer needs to sell herself or her family to Democrats. She's a pop culture icon whose videos go viral. Tonight she's perhaps the most popular Democrat in the room, a first lady with authenticity trying to make the case for the country's first female president, who struggles with authenticity. Asma Khalid, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.