First Lady Michelle Obama is everywhere. She’s traveling to China. She’s raising money for Democrats. She’s issuing plaintive tweets seeking the rescue of the kidnapped Nigerian girls.
She’s wading uncharacteristically deep into the Washington political mud pit to defend her school lunch program against Republicans, assailing them last Tuesday for opting to “play politics with our kids’ health.” She struck a similar tone in a New York Timesop-ed two days later, accusing Republicans of trying to “override science” and suggesting they join parents and “put our children’s interests first.”
So what’s with the bolder profile?
Sure, Obama cares strongly about the things she is doing. That she does care in fact begs another question: Is caring all that’s going on here? Does she have political ambitions that would allow her to pursue an agenda while working to cement her husband’s legacy?
Illinois has a Republican senator, Mark Kirk, and he is up for reelection in 2016. He’ll be formidable, particularly given his brave recovery from a stroke. But Illinois is a heavily Democratic state, and the race could be close.
No Illinois Democratic candidate would bring the star power and nationwide fundraising capacity that Obama would.
She has proven herself a superb speaker on behalf of her pet projects and is now a veteran campaigner for her husband. She’s also remained highly popular — even as the president’s ratings have plummeted.
She could represent the Democrats’ best chance to pick up a desperately needed — and winnable — seat. A December 2012 Public Policy Polling survey put her ahead of Kirk, 51 percent to 40 percent. Democratic leaders’ pressure on her to run might get intense.
But the most acute pressure could come from within. Anyone who has listened to her speeches, particularly on the campaign trail, understands that she is a dedicated liberal, who believes unreservedly in the power of government to transform lives.
Obama views the battle between Republicans and Democrats as a struggle for the soul of the nation.
“Who are we?” she repeatedly asked while campaigning in 2012. She said the election result would affect the country “for decades.”
Who we are, in Obama’s view, is a nation in which people help each other through the agency of the government. “Will we honor that fundamental belief,” she asked, “that we’re all better off when we work together?”
Can someone who views politics as an historic contest of ideas resist a unique chance to seize an available Senate seat?
The seriousness with which she takes her role as Obama’s partner in his work was perhaps revealed by a Freudian slip Monday night at a Democratic fundraiser.
“And then there were those of you (who) joined us after the primaries, and you were there when Barack and I first took office — or I took office alongside — or he took office and I was there,” she said to appreciative laughter.
The Senate looks like the perfect place for Obama. She could weigh in on any topic without having the executive responsibilities required of a governor or mayor — management reputedly not being one of her strong suits.
She would quickly become the most recognizable face in the Senate. Her fame and fundraising ability would command deference in a body that normally operates on seniority.
Whether the recent elevation of her profile suggests a plan to run is unclear, but she will be well positioned should she jump in.
Obama has stepped up her recent fundraising — holding two events for Democrats just this week and creating valuable chits she can call in should she run for office.
Unlike the Bill and Hillary Clinton, who did not keep a house in Arkansas when they came to Washington, or George W. and Laura Bush, who maintained a ranch in Texas they visited with great regularity, the Obamas have held onto an expensive home in Chicago — where they are almost never in residence.
The home, though, gives them a foothold in the state, where they continue to maintain residency. Both Obamas voted in Illinois in 2012, she by absentee ballot. Despite the first lady’s years in Washington, there would be no carpet bagging charges for her.
Obama appears to be maintaining her Illinois ties in other ways.
Last Monday she flew to Rhode Island to speak at the “keel-laying” event for the new submarine USS Illinois. She also recently awarded a National Medal for Museum and Library Service to the Chicago Public Library.
The down sides to Obama’s candidacy are serious — but don’t appear insurmountable. Particularly if her devotion to public policy is as strong as it seems.
She would have to be away from her family a lot in 2016 while campaigning in Illinois. But separation from her daughters for campaign duty is not something new for her — though it would be at a new level of intensity — and the girls go to sleep-away camp in the summer.
By the fall of 2016, Malia will already have flown the coop to college, while Sasha will be a big girl in high school.
Also unclear is whether Obama can take the constant hits dealt out during a political battle. With Kirk having been gravely ill, though, and Obama the sitting first lady, this might be something of a gentleman’s/gentlelady’s brawl.
Is politics in her future?
The first lady’s press office did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
When she was asked in 2012 whether she would run for president, she replied, “Absolutely not!”
But then she added: “One of the things you learn about yourself as you get older are what are your strengths and what are your interests. And for me, it’s the other stuff that is not being president. So I probably won’t run.
Keith Koffler is the editor of the website White House Dossier.
PHOTO (TOP): First Lady Michelle Obama arrives for a discussion with school nutrition experts about issues in school food programs at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, May 27, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
PHOTO (INSERT 1): First Lady Michelle Obama unveils proposed updates to nutrition facts labels during remarks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, February 27, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
PHOTO (INSERT 2): First Lady Michelle Obama participates in planting oats during the sixth annual White House Kitchen Garden event in Washington, April 2, 2014. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
PHOTO (INSERT 3): First Lady Michelle Obama gestures as she speaks to the spouses of chiefs of state and heads of government during an United Nations General Assembly luncheon at the Studio Museum in New York, September 24, 2013. REUTERS/Joshua Lott
PHOTO (INSERT 4): First Lady Michelle Obama speaks at a back-to-school event at Orr Elementary School in Washington, September 6, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron