Experts: Michelle Obama’s Popularity Makes Her Real Political Contender

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File photo of Michelle Obama (credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

File photo of Michelle Obama (credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – “Absolutely not.” “Not interested in politics.” “It will not happen.” “No chance at all.”

Those are the not-so-minced words that first lady Michelle Obama has used in recent months to weather, crush and all but put out any speculation of a future political career. That said, what if Michelle Obama was interested in eventually pursuing her own political career?

Less than four months before what is expected to be a highly-contested general election between presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama figures to be a considerable asset on the campaign trail for her husband’s re-election bid, prompting pipe-dream ideas of what the first lady would look like as a future Senate or congressional candidate.

In May, a New York Times column hinted at rumblings of the first lady campaigning not for her husband, but for herself as soon as next year if the president was to be defeated by Romney in the November election. The days following featured Michelle Obama denying her interest in a political career of her own, whether it were to start next year or in five years, telling The ViewUSA Today and just about any media outlet that asked that public office wasn’t in her future plans. The first lady has repeatedly said she will continue to publicly serve the needs of military families once her husband is done serving as president, but she has veered away from any and all talk about public office.

But looking at which Democratic candidate will come after President Obama, whether that starts to happen next year or in four years, is something that should weigh on the minds of Democratic pundits. With Michelle Obama, the natural comparison would be with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but there are striking personal and professional differences in comparing the two, specifically when it comes to Clinton’s natural ambition to get involved in the political forum on her own.

Other prominent examples of women who’ve emerged from the shadows of their more experienced and well-known husbands and family members have brought about a mixed bag. Former Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina enjoyed a relatively successful career in the U.S. Senate before losing in 2008 to current Sen. Kay Hagan. Consideration of Caroline Kennedy, the only living child of President John F. Kennedy, for Clinton’s vacant Senate seat in New York lasted all of a month, falling victim to media criticism for her lack of clarity and experience.

But Michelle Obama, though she may exhibit a combination of the past runs from Clinton, Dole and even Kennedy, is as recognizable as any public figure, which would certainly benefit her in any attempt at public office, according to Democrat and Republican strategists.

“Two of the most important things in politics are name identification and fundraising capacity, and she’d be off the charts in both in the unlikely scenario that she decided to run,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak told CBSDC. “She would clear the field on the Democratic side. If she chose to run for Congress or Senate in Illinois, she’d go in with enormous advantages.”

Even as her husband’s popularity has been on the decline in the last four years, public opinion toward the first lady has remained unchanged, which is a good thing. Michelle Obama holds a favorability rating of 66 percent, according to a recent Gallup Poll. The number is lower than the 73-percent clip once held by Laura Bush, but higher than the 56-percent rating for Hillary Clinton from 1992 to 2000. Clinton, who would go on to serve as a U.S. senator for New York before being tabbed as President Obama’s secretary of state, has an identical 66-percent approval rating for her performance as secretary of state. The first lady’s rating is 14 percentage points higher than her husband’s. Gallup data indicates that Michelle Obama does 24 percentage points better with Republicans and 15 points better with independents compared to her husband.

During her husband’s administration, Michelle Obama has made an effort to stay away from politics, concentrating her efforts on the quality of life for military families and the fight against obesity. Democratic strategist Andrew Moesel told CBSDC that Michelle Obama would not only need to flesh her stances on public policy issues, but also consider how much of her husband’s record would be hitched to any potential campaign she would consider in the future.

“The question is can she translate her personal popularity and issues she has championed into a coherent political platform that people can get behind?” said Moesel, director of media and government relations for Sheinkopf Ltd. “Obviously, the president and his wife are young. It will be interesting to see how this year’s presidential election could turn out, and whether Barack Obama could be positive or negate whatever political ambition she may have.”

The first lady’s steady rise in the popular polls came after a 2008 election that had her as being far less favorable than Cindy McCain, wife of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee. Michelle Obama was sporting a favorability rating of 43 percent in the summer months of the 2008 campaign before jumping to a rating of 68 percent just before the January 2009 inauguration, according to Gallup data. Even the most recent Gallup findings indicated that a more political role in this year’s election would possibly hurt her in the short term.

“But even if Michelle Obama’s image suffers to some extent by her taking on a more overtly political role this year, it is possible her image would recover once she steps back from that role,” the study said.

Whether that could happen remains uncertain. It’s a delicate balance that the Obama campaign would have to think about – and one that Republican counterparts would pay close attention to in the months, and possibly years, to come.

“The Obama folks realized that they had to rebuild her image and have done that pretty effectively,” said Mackowiak, founder of Potomac Strategy Group, of the first lady’s image. “The question is now what kind of exposure do you need to give her, while also making her feel protected and not risk what’s been built up?”

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