By MARSHA MERCER
In the year since her husband was elected president, Michelle Obama has become a surprise hit.
Barack Obama swept to victory on a high tide of optimism and good feeling, but as reality set in and Obama battled for his ambitious agenda, the tide receded. Michelle Obama, though, has triumphed over campaign critics who blasted her as angry and unpatriotic. She has become one of the country’s sunniest and most popular women.
Her popularity now surpasses his.
Michelle Obama is viewed favorably by 61 percent of Americans, while her husband’s favorability stands at 55 percent, according to the latest USA Today-Gallup poll. Perhaps more telling, only 25 percent view her unfavorably while 42 percent see the president unfavorably.
While his personal popularity in the mid-50s is still healthy, Obama’s policies may be losing strength. Slightly more than half -- 51 percent – say they disagree with him on issues most important to them, a new CNN-Opinion Research poll reports.
He of course is tackling the hard work of Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy, climate change and health-insurance reform.
Michelle Obama, 45, a Princeton and Harvard law grad, so far has avoided policy disputes. She dubbed herself “mom in chief,” allaying fears she would become a policy wonk. She focuses on worthy -- and safe – topics, including nutrition, health, education and military families.
The Obamas’ personal life continues to captivate many Americans. Unlike other political couples, the Obamas are affectionate in public and seem to like each other. They talked openly about their marriage, including its “bumps,” for a Nov. 1 New York Times Magazine article. Their daughters are adorable and not over-exposed. In photos, Malia and Sasha are almost always with a parent.
Mostly, Michelle Obama seems comfortable in her own skin and to enjoy life in the White House. During a children’s health fair on the South Lawn, she ran an obstacle course and tried jumping rope double-dutch and hula hooping. She reportedly kept the hula hoop going for 142 hip swivels.
"We don't just want our kids to exercise because we tell them to. We want them to exercise because it's fun and they enjoy it,” she said.
She appeared by satellite on “The Jay Leno Show” the other night and displayed her recall of childhood TV by rattling off the names of the kids from The Brady Bunch. She said a birthday party for first dog Bo on the South Lawn treated him to a cake made of veal. Fun times.
Fun is not something we naturally associate with first ladies. They have projects. Laura Bush, like her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, promoted literary. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign fought drug abuse. Hillary Clinton took on overhauling health care – and bombed.
Michelle Obama has talked about health-care reform but not much. During the campaign, she deployed to military bases to meet with servicemen and their families. Her trip Wednesday to New York with Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, for the opening game of the World Series also highlighted the military. The two stopped by a Veterans Affairs’ Medical Center in the Bronx to greet patients and staff as part of Major League Baseball’s new “Welcome Back Veterans” campaign.
“We owe [veterans] for what they’ve done for us,” Michelle Obama said. “Let’s be more aware of these heroes in our midst.” Even the harshest Obama haters couldn’t object to that.
A news story about her VA hospital visit ran at the bottom of page C7 of Thursday’s Washington Post. As much as news has changed, some things haven’t. A president’s actions get front-page coverage, while his wife lands softly in the features section. Even in the 21st Century, a first lady doesn’t want to make hard news too often.
Her legendary toned arms changed fashion. Her White House garden made people think more about what they eat. Next, she may change dating. She’ll be featured on the December cover of Glamour magazine wearing a sleeveless red cocktail dress and in its pages giving tips on dating. She’s already graced the cover of Vogue. A new book, “Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy,” is based on a blog that follows her fashions, mrs-o.org.
The president reportedly quotes her in Oval Office meetings. Michelle Obama has signaled she wants to do more with social issues, particularly childhood obesity. It will be worth watching whether she sticks to safe topics in the next year or ventures farther afield, risking her popularity.
© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.