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Michelle Obama is Dem rock star many wish would run for president

The Hill logo The Hill 10/12/2018 Amie Parnes and Judy Kurtz
Michelle Obama et al. holding wine glasses: Michelle Obama is Dem rock star many wish would run for president © Getty Images Michelle Obama is Dem rock star many wish would run for president The most popular Democrat in the country is about to go on a highly-anticipated book tour that is likely to remind the country of her political muscle.

Michelle Obama will talk to large crowds in arenas that hold rock concerts and NBA games. She'll appear all over the media, and sell more books, in all likelihood, than prospective 2020 candidates Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

But the former first lady is decidedly not running for president.

"Absolutely not," she said in a Thursday interview on the "Today Show" before a large crowd of fans. "I have never wanted to be a politician. It's one of those things that nothing has changed in me to make me want to run for elected office."

Unlike some politicians, there's no swaying the former first lady, Obama allies say.

"She has always said 'hell no,' and she means 'hell no,' said one former Obama White House aide. "And I know a lot of folks think that's a damn shame because she'd do so well."

Obama is in the news not only because of her upcoming book "Becoming," but because of a debate within the Democratic Party over how to combat President Trump and Republicans that centers on how tough a line Democrats should take. Hillary Clinton this week told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that "you cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about."

Even people close to the Obamas such as former Attorney General Eric Holder, say it's time to move on from her now famous line from the 2016 Democratic National Convention, "When they go low, we go high."

But Obama said Thursday her message "absolutely" still applies.

"Fear is not- it's not a proper motivator," Obama said on NBC's "Today Show."

"Hope wins out. And if you think about how you want your kids to be raised, how you want them to think about life and their opportunities, do you want them afraid of their neighbors? Do you want them angry? Do you want them vengeful?"

"We want them to grow up with promise and hope," Obama continued. "And we can't model something different if we want them to be better than that."

As the country appears more splintered than ever, Obama's aspirational tone gives the former first lady a high moral position within the party and American life. It is a similar tone Obama employed during her time as first lady, when she largely attempted to leave the political jabbing to her husband, focusing on child health and nutrition issues as well as assisting military families. And it is one that will likely remain untarnished in the Obama post-presidency because of her adamance in not running for political office.

Even as she tries to remain above the political fray, Obama will likely become one of the most sought-after surrogates for Democrats trying to defeat Trump in 2020. The then-first lady was an active participant in 2016, though it wasn't enough for Clinton.

Obama remains popular. A Zogby Analytics poll in May suggested she would start out with an advantage over Trump, with 48 percent approver her compared to 39 percent for the president. A yougov.com poll in April showed a 90 percent favorability rating among Democrats.

"When she speaks, she doesn't come from a political background. She doesn't come from a place of polling numbers," said Michael Starr Hopkins, a Democratic strategist and veteran of Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. "There's a very authentic message that comes from her and people trust her."

"Her popularity among her fans is as clear as the six-figure ticket sales for the book tour," added Peter Slevin, who authored the book 'Michelle Obama: A Life" and is also an associate professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

Slevin was also on-hand for a star-studded get-out-the-vote rally with Obama last month in Miami. "The response of the crowd could only be described as rapturous when they heard her speak," he said.

He called Obama's upcoming 10 city book tour-where Ticketmaster was pre-selling tickets to events at the Barclay's Center in New York and Capital One Arena in Washington- "unprecedented."

Katherine Jellison, a professor and chair of history at Ohio University, who has studied first ladies, said it speaks to the tenor of the political climate.

"I think at a time when so much of the rhetoric is divisive people continue to like her very much because her rhetoric was upbeat and hopeful," she said.

In terms of first ladies, she said the closest figure to Obama is Eleanor Roosevelt, who became a spokesperson of sorts on issues of social justice and human rights.

"Even though Michelle Obama has never held elected office, she's drawing crowds because she's a moral compass for many Americans," Jellison said.

But Washington insiders caution the goodwill Obama has garnered with much of the public could rapidly evaporate if she takes on a more politically tough tone ahead of next month's midterm elections and the 2020 White House race.

"Part of the reason she's so popular is, for the most part, she's stayed out of politics," said Penny Young Nance, president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, a conservative women's group.

While Nance praised Obama as a "good first lady" and "very dignified," she said "the moment she opens her mouth and starts sharing her political views [our members] are not going to support her."

In the interview on the "Today Show" on Thursday, Obama says she wants to serve - in her own way.

"... There's so many ways to make an impact," she said. "Politics is just not my thing."

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