Once portrayed as unpatriotic, Michelle Obama has quietly carved a niche on the campaign trail as a sounding board for military families, taking up a cause that could define her agenda as first lady.
Every few weeks, Obama meets with military spouses in swing states, where she presents herself as a kindred spirit and Barack Obama as the best choice for their families. She attended the two debates with military family members. And at the Democratic National Convention, she led a day of service on behalf of Blue Star Families for Obama, a two-month old group with the tagline: “Pro-Military, Pro-Obama.”
Obama aides say her work with military families has nothing to do with the controversy created by her February comment suggesting that the presidential campaign made her proud of the United States for the first time. But the effort could be viewed as an exercise in counterprogramming, serving as a rebuttal to criticism from Cindy McCain and others for a comment that Michelle Obama insists was misinterpreted – and the notion that her husband, a Democrat with no military service, cannot peel off voters from John McCain, an ex-Navy pilot and war hero.
“Barack and I know that too often it feels like you are alone, on your own,” Obama told military spouses last month in Santa Fe, N.M. “I know you become everything. In a small way, I have experienced that over the course of this campaign, but in no way does it compare to what you are going through.”
Michelle Obama's focus on military families puts her at the leading edge of the Democratic nominee's campaign to reclaim some of the military vote from Republicans – an effort that brought Barack Obama here Sunday for a rally near Fort Bragg, where a military wife introduced him and he touted his endorsement from Colin Powell, the retired four-star general and President George W. Bush's first Secretary of State.
Since the start of the campaign, Michelle Obama says she has focused on three things: keeping life normal for her young daughters, electing her husband, and discussing the work-life balance with women around the country. The spouses of service members captured her attention during a roundtable with working mothers, and she later hosted her first military-focused event in Fayetteville in May, a day before the North Carolina primary.
She will hold her seventh military spouses meeting Tuesday in Pensacola, Fla., following similar events in recent months in states heavily impacted by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, including Virginia, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.
At each roundtable, she sits on stage with several spouses, delivers prepared remarks and opens a discussion. The roundtables draws local media coverage, and she answers questions about her involvement when asked by national reporters, as she did during an interview with CNN at the Democratic convention.
“Mostly I am here to listen and to do a lot of learning and then to transfer that information into the heart and mind of my husband as he moves forth,” Michelle Obama said in Norfolk, Va., in August. “The commander in chief doesn’t just need to know how to lead the military, he needs to understand what war does to military families.”
Her work in this area offers a hint at what could dominate her time in the White House.
“If she becomes first lady, this will be her cause,” said Amanda McBreen, 47, a Marine wife who participated in the Norfolk roundtable and helps coordinate 24 state chapters of Blue Star Families for Obama.
Michelle Obama pledged to do so in the Oct. 27 issue of U.S. News and World Report, when she explained what she would do if her husband became president: “I would work daily on the issues closest to my heart: helping working women and families, particularly military families. … I'd continue these conversations with working women and military spouses, and I'd take their stories back to Washington to make sure that the people who run our country know how their policies touch their constituents' lives.”
But Kathy Roth-Douquet, a founder of Blue Star Families and a Marine spouse who supported Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary, said she wishes more voters knew about Michelle Obama’s work.
“She is probably the most motivating figure in the military family community,” Roth-Douquet, 44, said. “We like Obama, but we love her. She gets what we are getting.”
Campaign aides are “very sensitive,” Roth-Douquet said. “They are trying not to exploit the issue. I appreciate their lack of exploitation. I just wish more people knew about it. I wish that when people thought about which candidates were looking out for military families, they didn’t automatically think about John McCain.”
It can be frustrating, she added, because she has never seen a potential first couple pay “this kind of attention to military families.”
But she conceded that the job falls to Blue Star Families – the product of poolside kibitzing this spring among a circle of Marine wives in Parris Island, S.C. – to promote the Obamas. The women reached out to the Obama campaign in April, and learned that their interests were coverging with Michelle Obama, who had begun to tune into the burdens facing military spouses. Obama helped launch the project formally in August.
The storyline is a counterweight to the portrayal of Michelle Obama as unpatriotic on some blogs and by Republican critics, an image cemented when she told an audience during the primary that “for the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud of my country.” She later qualified the remark, insisting she meant that she has never been as proud as she is now.
But it hasn't completely gone away. Cindy McCain recently reprised a line she used months ago, telling an audience last week, “I have always been proud of my country.” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), appearing Friday on MSNBC’s Hardball, said Michelle Obama held “very anti-American views.”
Although her foes continue to hammer her with it, Michelle Obama hasn’t stumbled in a significant way since then.
As part of attempts to soften her image, Obama took well-received turns on ABC’s “The View” and at Democratic National Convention, where she delivered a primetime speech to 17 million viewers that cast her, in the campaign’s parlance, as “one of us.” Each night, cameras featured her tearing up at some speeches and cheering on others.
“Things changed instantly when she had the platform really to introduce herself,” Obama chief strategist David Axelrod said, citing public and internal campaign polls that showed an improvement in her approval ratings after her speech.
Michelle Obama has spent recent months traveling to almost two dozen states, headlining more than 50 events and quietly charting out a potential post-Election Day roadmap.
“She has had a great education into what we do on a regular basis that most people don’t really know,” McBreen said. “I have friends and family members who don’t have any clue what my life is like. My own family and closest friends don’t understand my life like she does now.”