Democrats struggling to hold onto their congressional seats — or just make it to Washington — are getting backup, a cash infusion and a dash of star power from a political spouse who’s making a highly anticipated return to the campaign trail: first lady Michelle Obama.
Not seen on the stump since the 2008 campaign that elevated her husband to the White House, Mrs. Obama is venturing out this week to support a group of candidates — mostly senators — whose help President Barack Obama needs to keep advancing his agenda through Congress in the two years left in his term.
The first lady basically has avoided politics since coming to Washington, but last week she declared herself “fired up and ready to go” to do her part to help Democrats stay in power on Capitol Hill.
“I’m looking forward to getting back out there,” Mrs. Obama — recently crowned the most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine — said during a conference call with Obama supporters. “I’m excited.”
She steps back into the rough and tumble of politics on Wednesday, headlining a fundraiser at the U.S. Cellular Arena in Milwaukee for Sen. Russ Feingold, who is in a difficult re-election battle for a fourth term.
Milwaukee is also the place where, in February 2008, Mrs. Obama’s comment about being proud of her country for the first time in her adult life gave her critics another reason to dislike her.
From Milwaukee, Mrs. Obama heads to her Chicago hometown Wednesday to help raise money for Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois state treasurer and friend of her husband who is campaigning to keep Obama’s former Senate seat in Democratic hands. She’ll also headline a separate fundraiser for a trio of Illinois House candidates.
On Thursday, Mrs. Obama drops into Denver, the mile-high city where Obama accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, for a money-raising luncheon for Sen. Michael Bennet.
She and the president plan their first joint appearance of the campaign season on Sunday in Ohio.
Mrs. Obama is one of the most popular figures in the administration. A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that she is viewed favorably by 68 percent of adults compared to 57 percent who have a positive view of the president. She is so popular that some candidates have expressed more excitement at the prospect of campaigning with her than with her husband.
“It’s wonderful to have him,” said first lady historian Myra Gutin, “but she’s got the star power.”
Don’t expect Mrs. Obama to get ahead of the president, though.
Obama has campaigned, in some cases more than once, with the Senate candidates on his wife’s political schedule — all of whom are defending Democratic turf and are by no means assured of victory on the night of Nov. 2.
Obama — and now Mrs. Obama — are looking to the Senate because losing any of the 59 seats the party holds would seriously crimp Obama’s ability to move his agenda through Congress.
Mrs. Obama will also sound the same themes as her husband — about the economy growing slowly but moving in the right direction, about how they understand the frustration that’s out there and that voting three weeks from Tuesday is the only way to bring about the change people voted for two years ago.
She’s also likely to wrap in a word about her own causes, from childhood obesity to military families.
In short, expect a no-drama version of Mrs. Obama.
“I would urge all of you out there, as you’re knocking on doors, to remind people that change is difficult and we’re just beginning to see the results of our work,” the first lady told supporters on last week’s conference call. “So don’t stay home. Don’t let frustration keep you from voting.”
She won’t directly criticize the opposing candidates, but instead will talk about how the Democrat could help her husband, added Gutin.
“She’s not the heavy in this,” said Gutin, who teaches at Rider University in New Jersey. “She’s not the person who’s going to really be critical and say nasty things about the Republicans.”
That’s a job for the president and his other surrogates.
Mrs. Obama’s political schedule so far amounts to 10 fundraisers in seven states over 12 days — from Oct. 13-27. Additional stops are expected in the final week before Election Day.
Besides Milwaukee and Chicago, she’ll head west for Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Barbara Boxer of California, and to the northeast for Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
Mrs. Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California plan a joint appearance, and the first lady also is scheduled to address Democratic Party fundraisers in New York and California.
Mrs. Obama’s campaign schedule is taking her to places where she could be most helpful politically while staying on top of her first lady duties and being available for daughters Malia, 12, and Sasha, 9, aides say.
She so far is not making solo appearances at any of the thousand-person rallies where Obama has been speaking because she tries to avoid traveling on weekends, when her daughters are home from school.
First ladies, especially the ones who are more popular than their husbands, seem to have little choice but to hit the campaign trail — whether they relish being out there or not.
Laura Bush, who often said husband George W. Bush promised her she’d never have to give a political speech, campaigned often during the 2002 and 2006 congressional elections.
“When your spouse is in politics, you’re involved whether you want to be or not,” she joked in 2006.