Is Michelle Obama Democrats’ Secret Weapon?

by Stuart Rothenberg August 17, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

“The White House is hoping that Michelle can do for Barack what Laura did for George and the GOP four years ago,” wrote Washington Post political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson recently, in an August 11, 2010 article that reported on efforts to get the First Lady heavily involved in this year’s midterm elections.

The piece noted that Laura Bush “attended more than 70 events at a time when her approval rating was about twice as high as her husband’s,” and it reported that Democratic officeholders from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to Reps. Mary Jo Kilroy and Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), who is running for the Senate, have already invited Mrs. Obama to campaign with them.

But what exactly did Mrs. Bush “do” for the President and her party four years ago? Republicans lost 30 House seats and 6 Senate seats that year – losing control of both the House and the Senate.

Might the GOP suffered more losses if Laura Bush hadn’t attended those dozens of events? Maybe, but who knows for sure?

Mrs. Bush raised some money for GOP candidates, but money wasn’t the problem for Republican candidates that year. The war in Iraq and the fallout from Hurricane Katrina had damaged the President’s reputation and allowed Democrats to run a national “change” message.

Mrs. Obama certainly can get press attention when she goes into races, and she can raise money for Democrats. She may even help mobilize some voters, particularly African Americans and young people, who would otherwise stay home in November.

But the idea that Michelle Obama, whom the Post piece describes as a “pop-culture icon,” can transform the 2010 midterm election any more than Laura Bush transformed the 2006 midterm election relies more on wishful thinking that political reporting and analysis.

There are certainly some places where Mrs. Obama or the President could help Democrats, but they are few and far between, since the Democrats’ greatest problems are in Republican, conservative and swing districts that over performed for Democrats in 2006 and/or 2008.

At the end of the day, few voters are going to say that they are voting Democratic for Congress because they like Mrs. Obama’s obesity initiative.

Ohio Democratic Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy, who faces an uphill bid for re-election, is quoted in the Post piece as saying about the First Lady, “She has a broad appeal and is sort of a no-nonsense speaker and very clear and direct, and I think her compassion and intelligence and values, all really comes through.”

Whatever that means, it may be the case. But the midterms are likely to be more about jobs, government spending and an angry electorate than about whether Michelle Obama is compassionate and intelligent. You can bet on it.

Another strange bit of advice appeared on August 10, 2010 via AOL Politics Daily columnist Eleanor Clift.

Citing the work of Arizona State University communications professor Kelly McDonald, Clift wrote, “McDonald says Obama could use more Reaganisms to convey a sense of optimism and conviction if he hopes to get voters to ‘stay the course’ as they did with Reagan in 1982.”

Clift surely is correct that the President needs to “do a better job of connecting with [people’s] emotions,” but Professor McDonald’s advice – at least at this point in the election cycle – seems seriously misguided.

Voters are worried about the economy, government spending, the lack of new jobs being created and the difficult situation in Afghanistan, and if the President were to sound more optimistic than he already does, he would only appear out of touch. That would hurt him and his party in the fall elections.

It’s true that Republicans “only” lost 26 House seats in the 1982 midterm elections and that Democrats could suffer substantially larger losses this year. But that’s not because of Reagan’s optimism – it’s because Republicans began with just 192 seats, so they had relatively few to lose.

This year, Democrats hold 256 House seats, including dozens that were held by the GOP until the 2006 or 2008 elections. That means that they now hold many more marginal districts and a have much greater exposure than did Republicans in 1982.