Michelle Obama’s negatives in opinion polls are the worst ever registered for a candidate’s wife, deep enough, perhaps, to turn the election against Barack. Presumably that is why the Democratic Party wheeled out a chipper, perky, sunny and smiling African-American female who claimed to be Michelle Obama in the keynote slot of its national convention Monday night. This alleged Michelle Obama bore a striking physical resemblance to the candidate’s wife observed during the campaign, but the differences in attitude and rhetoric were extreme enough to warrant verification.

Mrs. Obama’s appearance was the star event on an otherwise lackluster first evening. She was introduced by her brother, basketball coach Craig Robinson, who mentioned that as a child she had memorized every episode of the popular television comedy, The Brady Bunch. That was perhaps the most informative political introduction in the history of American politics, and a moment of magical realism. For a moment, the incautious listener might have felt transported back into the situation-comedy world of 1950s American television, into The Obama Bunch

The lady who has often protested against America’s unfairness protested much too little. Gone was the woman who told a television audience last February 18, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. And I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment.”

Never before has a candidate’s wife delivered a major address to a national convention of either party. The break in precedent stems evidently from the urgent need to remake the image built up by sections of the media of Michelle Obama as a rancorous and resentful woman. But it also may reflect the extraordinary degree of her influence in her husband’s campaign. She is reported to have ruled out Senator Hillary Clinton as a vice presidential candidate, although polls showed that Clinton would strengthen the ticket more than any other choice.

Women wept in the Colorado Convention Center as Michelle spoke not of “frustration and disappointment,” but of how she embodied the success of the American dream. Thanks to her parents “faith and hard work,” both she and her brother Craig “were able to go on to college. So I know firsthand from their lives and mine that the American dream endures.”

She spoke of “knowing that my piece of the American dream is a blessing hard won by those who came before me. That is why I love this country. And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them and even if you don’t agree with them. And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values and pass them on to the next generation, because we want our children and all children in this nation to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”

Watch for a big bounce in Michelle’s numbers, which until now represented a vulnerability to Obama’s campaign. No candidate’s spouse ever has drawn an “unfavorable” opinion by 30% of the voters, not even Hillary Clinton after her suspicious commodity trading profits were reported in the summer of 1992. Teresa Heinz Kerry’s haughtiness (for example, her comment that the former schoolteacher and librarian Laura Bush never had held down a real job) helped sink John Kerry’s campaign in 2004.

%FavourableUnfavourableNo Opinion
Michelle Obama 8/08513019
Cindy McCain
Teresa Heinz Kerry 7/04272647
Laura Bush
Laura Bush
Tipper Gore
Elizabeth Dole
Hillary Clinton

‘00 polls by Gallup. Source: ABC News [1]

Giving Michelle the keynote address at the convention is consistent with the Obama campaign’s overall defensive strategy. The choice of Democratic Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware as running mate seemed odd given Biden’s poor performance during the Democratic primaries, but it provides a response of sorts to the perception that Barack Obama has insufficient experience in foreign policy. Michelle Obama carries baggage that might weigh down the campaign, and an unprecedented role at the convention appears intended to rehabilitate her image.

Although the party delegates received her rapturously, this level of visibility for the candidate’s wife has its risks, for it allows journalists to put difficult questions to her. Her Princeton undergraduate thesis, for example, expresses open sympathy for the black radicalism of Stokely Carmichael, as well as a dour pessimism regarding the ability of black Princeton students to integrate into the American dream (see Sing, O Muse, the wrath of Michelle Asia Times Online, March 4, 2008) .

Although Michelle Obama can exult in the American dream (her hospital administrator job pays mid-six-figures), she has urged working-class audiences not to do precisely what she did, telling an Ohio group, “We left corporate America, which is a lot of what we’re asking young people to do. Don’t go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need, and we’re encouraging our young people to do that.”

The promotional video introducing her speech to the convention made a great deal of the fact that Michelle left a corporate law firm to tutor disadvantaged children, but did not mention her re-entry into the corporate world. Her role at the convention, again, leaves her open to pointed questioning about the discrepancy between her rhetoric and her own career choices.

Whether the Michelle Obama we saw on Monday night has the sangfroid to stand up to the inevitable hazing by the press corps remains to be seen. What is clear is that the Obama campaign is playing defense, a stance that has helped the candidate in the polls to date.

1. The Spouses, ABN News, August 24, 2008.