There is no denying the popularity or star power of First Lady Michelle Obama. It was evident early on during the Obama campaign in 2008 that the candidate had a secret weapon in his charismatic spouse. Perhaps no First Lady since Jackie Kennedy has captured the imagination of the public and become so popular, so fast. The White House is now hoping Mrs. Obama’s appeal will translate into votes as they have dispatched her to the campaign trail to rally Democrats before the November midterm election.
It is quite evident why the White House has decided to send the First Lady campaigning. She is smart, attractive and comes across earnest in her contact with the public. Given the drop in President Obama’s poll numbers, the White House is hoping the First Lady will shore up the party’s rank and file, and defend the administration’s record. With the President facing opposition from within Democrat’s core constituency groups, they must now perform the equivalent of political triage, and stop the bleeding by order of severity within the electorate.
One of the realities the administration is facing is the ambivalence of Black voters. While all polls show the President’s support remains strong among Blacks, that support may not necessarily transfer down the line to congressional and statewide Democratic candidates on the ballot. Under normal circumstances, and these are hardly normal times in which we live, Black elected officials would be on the stump for the party. With several key members of the Congressional Black Caucus facing investigations, and Black mayors almost invisible, the Democratic Party is lacking ground troops to motivate Black voters. The party’s ability to motivate Blacks and younger voters suffers by the absence of “messengers.”
The dearth of Black elected leadership at the forefront of the campaign trail could not come at a worse time for the Black electorate. Difficult as it has been to construct a new paradigm under the first Black President, what is equally frustrating is the lack of a unifying message from Black elected leadership to guide Black political activism. The days of simply directing Black voters to “follow us” are over, as the daily struggles confronting Blacks require more than simplistic appeals to race consciousness. While race still matters, how it matters today is what Black leadership has not found the way to communicate to the masses. In the context of the current administration, there is obvious affection for President Obama, and pride in his election, among Black Americans but equally evident is growing frustration because we are not sure about what’s in it for us. If Black elected officials, particularly members of Congress, cannot articulate a governing paradigm that benefits Blacks, then there is little chance for party loyalty toward candidates who are sounding more like Republicans than Democrats these days.
Enter the First Lady. In many ways, she is the administration’s insurance policy. To date, her most visible role has been her campaign against childhood obesity. Much the same way Mrs. Kennedy championed the restoration of the White House and the promotion of the arts, and Lady Bird Johnson the beautification of the nation’s landscape, Mrs. Obama found a very worthwhile project in obesity. Now, as she enters the political fray, it will be interesting to observe how the public reacts to her post-election when she resumes working on her public interest priorities. Unlike forty years ago, the nation’s partisan divide is raw and acidic, and the President’s opponents are likely to sharpen their knives as Mrs. Obama switches gears this election season.
When the dust settles after the November midterm election, this President is going to have to define his priorities and communicate them in a way that registers with voters. Most importantly, he is going to have to create a team in the White House that reflects the change he championed on the campaign trail. The 2012 campaign kicks into full gear next year. Should Mrs. Obama prove successful stumping for candidates, the White House should consider her political capital when reconstructing the West Wing and find a meaningful way to include her in decision making beyond the traditional fluff handed off to a First Lady.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.