Thursday, September 17, 2009

Michelle Obama To Get Busy(er)
on Health Care Reform


Pushing for health care reform didn’t turn out so well for the last first lady in a Democratic White House.

But with a retooled staff and an under-the-radar summer behind her, Michelle Obama plans a packed autumn that aides say will include a “dedicated focus” on health insurance reform — the same issue that brought such headaches to Hillary Clinton.

“She will do things that fit in with what she cares about, like health care reform and the implications it has for family and kids,” said Camille Johnston, Obama’s director of communications. “She will spend her time focusing on where policy and people intersect.”

For the health care reform push, which got something of a reboot last week with President Barack Obama’s address to Congress, the aim is for the first lady’s imprimatur to put a friendly face and a noncontroversial spin on a complex, highly partisan issue.

She won’t get into the weeds on health care, pushing specific details or plans as Clinton did. Instead, she’ll make the soft, soccer-mom sell, highlighting the need to eat healthy, exercise and get preventive care. On Friday, Michelle Obama will appear at an event where women and families will talk about the health care system, and she will deliver remarks that will “amplify the president’s message on the need for health insurance reform,” according to the White House.

And she’ll most likely have a receptive audience.

Over the past eight months, Obama has been quick and strategic in introducing and branding herself — she’s graced magazine covers from Iowa to Italy and dazzled Europe, and even Prince Charles asked about her garden.

She’s also amassed a great deal of goodwill — something her husband and his administration can certainly use in the fractious, rancorous health care struggle.

Recent surveys had her favorability ratings in the mid-70s, reflecting the general likability that most first ladies enjoy. Carroll Doherty, of the Pew Research Center, said Obama’s ratings could have declined given her husband’s sliding poll numbers, but likely only near the margins.

So far, she’s largely steered clear of policy, most likely contributing to the high marks.

“I think she has been a very good representative. She is very popular, very well-liked; she’s planted the garden, done a lot of traveling — but it’s a much more ceremonial activity. It’s more of a traditional role,” said Myra Gutin, a first lady historian at Rider University. “Now, we are eight months in, the kids are settled; it would seem to me that if she was going to undertake a project, then it’s time. But she is still clearly growing into the office.”

The fall could offer the biggest growth spurt for Obama, who has in some ways been slower out of the gate than her predecessors in settling on a signature issue — her bio on the White House website still lists three key issues: work-life balance, military issues and community service.

On the health care front, she has in her first months in some ways been an accidental ambassador for better self-care — a self-identified fitness freak with buff arms that launched a thousand workout routines.

Yet health care, with the specter of Hillarycare, could present something of a stumbling block for the first lady, who has so far soared above partisanship, garnering Oprah-like appeal.

Some past White House veterans agree and say there is no comparison.

Dee Dee Myers, press secretary for former President Bill Clinton, said the decision to put Hillary Clinton in charge of selling health care and the controversy that ensued is “very, very different than the circumstances that Michelle Obama finds herself in.”