What Next for Michelle Obama?

Michelle Obama has sworn she’ll never run for president - so what next for the woman more popular than Hillary?

Michelle Obama speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Picture / Getty Images.

‘I’m so happy this day has come,” said Hillary Clinton, as she became the first woman nominated for president by a major American political party on Thursday, following a stirring, searing riposte to Donald Trump. Still, delegates in Philadelphia could be forgiven for wishing, if only for a moment, that someone else with First Lady experience was the nominee.

Three days before, Michelle Obama electrified the Democratic National Convention with a speech that sliced Trump and his mean-spirited vision of America into ribbons. Without so much as mentioning his name, she made him look small and praised Clinton as the gritty champion of progress. Her address sent the delegates and assembled pundits into rapture.

“In this election, we cannot sit back and hope that everything works out for the best. We cannot afford to be tired or frustrated or cynical,” she said of a battle against a Republican candidate unlike any in memory. “We need to knock on every door, we need to get out every vote. We need to pour every last ounce of passion into electing Hillary Clinton.”

When Michelle speaks, Democrats - and not a few Republicans - listen. Even the Twitter-happy Trump dared not challenge the First Lady, one of the most popular women in the country. From her straight-from-the-heart oratory to her dynamic fashion choices and the pop culture videos that invariably go viral, she commands unprecedented attention.

To pitch fitness routines, she posted a video that showed her kickboxing. To reach young adults with a message of healthy eating, she fed kale chips to a pair of comedians dressed in drag on late-night television. In the first week after she laughed and sang her way through an episode of Carpool Karaoke with James Corden, the video had recorded 35 million views.

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She has fun, but she is strategic. Each appearance is designed to “move the needle”, as her staff puts it, on a project she cares about. After running through Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered and Beyonce’s Single Ladies in Carpool Karaoke, Michelle described her international education effort, Let Girls Learn, which is designed to reach some of the world’s 62 million girls who are not in school.

“So much could be corrected in the world if girls were educated and had power over their lives,” she said. “My message to kids here is, don’t take your education for granted, because there are girls around the world who would die to get the education that we have.”

The scene was patented Michelle. As she instructed her staff soon after arriving in the White House without a map in 2009: “Don’t just put me on a plane, send me some place and have me smile.”

One newly prominent admirer is Melania Trump, the Slovenian-born fashion model who would become First Lady if Trump does win in November. She created a firestorm at the Republican National Convention when she borrowed, word for word, lines from one of Michelle’s most renowned speeches. A speechwriter said the cribbing was inadvertent.

Michelle’s fans are already nostalgic, six months ahead of the Obamas’ White House departure. But she has some work to do - none more important to the Obama legacy than helping Clinton defeat Trump.

Michelle and Hillary have never been close, dating back to the tense 2008 presidential campaign. Yet putting another Democrat in the White House, and not incidentally electing the first female president, is a cause the First Lady last week proved that she can embrace.

No one is happier about Michelle’s endorsement than the Clinton team. They saw in that first campaign the power and the passion she can bring to the fight. Starting in 2007, as Barack Obama was introducing himself to American voters, Michelle played the role of validator. She travelled the country, offering reassuring words about her largely unknown husband, whose challenge to the Clinton juggernaut seemed quixotic at best.

The Obamas have always recognised the power of personal narrative. Barack told television interviewer Oprah Winfrey in 2004: “Politics has to be guided by facts, but to move people, you have to tell stories.” As she did last week in Philadelphia, Michelle deftly crafted her 2008 stump speech as a series of scenes and lessons from their lives, each intended to reveal Barack’s character and her own.

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In the White House, Michelle is known for her strong views. “She tells the President exactly what she thinks. She doesn’t hold back. She is completely honest,” says presidential adviser and friend Valerie Jarrett. Another Chicago friend, Marty Nesbitt, describes Michelle as the most “do what’s right” person in Barack’s circle.

A key to Michelle’s popularity is a sense of authenticity. She talks openly about the scorn she faced as a teenager when she set her sights on attending elite Princeton University. She reveals her vulnerabilities, including moments when she worried she was hurting Barack’s electoral chances and, in the White House, when she feared disappointing the voters who had sent them there.

Michelle trained at Princeton and Harvard Law School and spent 20 years building a successful career largely independent of her husband. When they entered the White House, determined to make a difference in her unelected, unpaid and not exactly self-chosen new role, she turned to issues that had long animated her - notably the intersection of children, health, education and the nation’s persistent inequality.

She focused first on childhood obesity and nutrition. More than one third of American children are deemed overweight or obese; a disproportionate percentage are African-American or Hispanic. Later, she pushed young people, especially children of colour and more especially girls, to fight for the education that she credits with launching her out of Chicago’s working class, where her father was a shift worker in the city water plant.

No First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt has paid so much attention to issues of race, class and inequality. Yet what sets Michelle apart are the creative ways she targets her message to the audiences she most wants to reach. She has mastered social media, posting humorous videos, as well as more serious tweets, Instagram photos and Snapchat posts.
It has become routine for her to make cameo appearances on television, from Sesame Street to the police drama NCIS to doing push-ups with talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

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While Michelle’s popularity percentage consistently reaches into the sixties - higher than her husband’s - in a deeply polarised nation, Republican critics mock her body, belittle her chosen history lessons and dismiss her nutrition admonitions as the hallmarks of a nanny state. After nearly 10 years in the public eye, she has heard it all. She told the convention last week, “Our motto is: ‘When they go low, we go high.’?”

Her options now appear limitless, but she has told friends that she has made no firm decisions. Before Barack’s election she was a hospital executive at the University of Chicago, and had focused on improving healthcare for disadvantaged African Americans on Chicago’s South Side: the Obamas will be building a presidential library and community centre there.

She will write a book, no doubt pocketing millions. Most of all, she will be looking forward to time outside the spotlight, to travel, be with family, drive in a car with the windows down and go for a walk when no one is watching.

One place she has no desire to go is back to the White House as president - although it remains a popular idea. “No. Nope. Not going to do it,” she said in March. Lest there be any doubt, Barack said recently that three things in life are certain: death, taxes and Michelle not running for president.

Evidence from the past week suggests, however, that mere words will not stop her most ardent fans from dreaming of the day.

— The Daily Telegraph

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