Political Physics: The Michelle Obama Transmutation


A blogumn by Monique King-Viehland

Michelle Obama – Is she hurting Barack’s campaign?

In June, Time magazine posed this question on its front cover: “Will Michelle Obama hurt Barack’s chances in November?” I’ve read a lot of articles these past nine months about Michelle Obama…most of which have not been very flattering. It appears that the media’s love for Barack Obama (post Democratic National Convention that is) is only rivaled by their disdain for Michelle Obama.

The media claim was that she was unpatriotic because of her “For the first time in my adult life…” comment. And the contention was that was she was racist because of the senior thesis she wrote at Princeton, entitled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community” in 1985 or the outrage over her failure to attend 9/11 ceremonies because she did not want to miss her daughter’s first week of school. And who could forget the infamous New Yorker cover depicting Michelle as a gun-toting terrorist.

And this negative coverage has had an impact. According to a recent Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey, 78% of Americans have heard at least a little about Michelle Obama. By contrast, just 54% have heard at least a little about Cindy McCain, including only 9% who have heard a lot about her. And though their opinions of Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain are largely favorable, Michelle Obama (at 22%) got slightly higher negative ratings than does Cindy McCain (at 16%).

Today, Zimbio Online is running a survey on their site asking, “Does Michelle Obama help or hurt Barack Obama’s campaign?” Currently, 53% of respondents say Michelle Obama is helping the campaign and 47% of respondents say she is hurting the campaign.

Now that still means more people believe that Michelle is helping the campaign, despite all of the negative press. But in an election this close – the latest Quinnipiac Poll is 49% Obama, 45% McCain and 6% Unsure/Other – is that gap between the help and hurt wide enough?

When I was a White House intern (post-Monica but pre-scandal), I worked for the then Senior Policy Advisor for President Clinton, Rahm Emanuel. I came across a report by a political strategist firm. The report basically assessed Bill Clinton’s chance of reelection in light of the negative perception of Hilary Clinton. It seems that men and women alike found Hilary to be emasculating and overbearing. The report suggested that Hilary’s image be reworked prior to the start of the re-election campaign. And that is exactly what happened. Hilary Clinton’s image during the reelection campaign was quieter, more demure, hell they even changed her look. See the picture to the right.

And Michelle Obama has undergone a similar metamorphosis, although not as extreme. She remains a constant fixture on the campaign trail, but her image has become has become “softer.” As the NYT noted recently, she focuses more on soliciting concerns and empathizing with audience rather than throwing down challenges to them. She has given more interviews to shows like The View and publications like Ladies’ Home Journal. The change has even been reflected in her fashion choices, with Michelle shifting from suits to dresses.

Is this transformation huge? No it’s subtle. But clearly the Obama campaign was concerned about Michelle’s impact on Barack’s chances of becoming President. Will this “image makeover” help? I guess we’ll see in November.

As for me, I like Michelle Obama just the way she is! And she is a significant part of the reason that Barack Obama is getting my vote in November.


Michelle Obama Photo Credit: Mike Baird/flickr.com