Michelle Obama, a new force in politics

With so much focus on her husband, Michelle Obama's emergence has gone unnoticed.

Published October 28, 2008 2:24PM (EDT)

Michelle Obama was yukking it up with Jay Leno Monday night, telling the late-night host that her eldest daughter, Malia, was worried that her dad's major television buy was going to interfere with the Obama daughters' favorite TV programming. Obama said Malia pestered her father by asking, "'You're going to be on all the TV? Are you going to interrupt my TV?' To which he responded, 'No, we didn't buy time on Disney and Nick[elodeon].'" (It might have been different if the under-18 crowd could vote, natch.)

This morning, the New York Times leads with a Patrick Healy profile of Michelle Obama. Some key graphs:

While some of Senator Barack Obama's advisers once viewed Mrs. Obama as an unpredictable force who sometimes spoke her mind a little too much, she is now regarded within the campaign as a disciplined and effective advocate for her husband. She has also, advisers believe, gone a long way toward addressing her greatest unstated challenge: making more voters comfortable with the idea of a black first lady ...

By the standards of a national political campaign, Mrs. Obama does maintain a somewhat limited schedule. (She has stumped outside Chicago on 20 of the 57 days since Labor Day, the traditional start of the fall election season.) Most of the time she is at home taking care of the couple's 10- and 7-year-old daughters, a choice that advisers hope will pay dividends among women of all races who can relate to her priorities.

But when she is at political events -- occasionally with Mr. Obama, though much more often on her own -- she is drawing large crowds, speaking with new confidence and generally avoiding gaffes as she confronts one of the trickiest tasks in the campaign. Many voters view first families as symbols of the nation, and Mrs. Obama is selling a package that for large numbers of Americans poses a real change.

Michelle Obama -- a new force in politics. What's interesting about her, like the current and previous first ladies, is that if her husband wins next week the couple will be the third in a row to bring young children into the White House. Politicians garner most of the political attention, but politicians' spouses lead lives just as tough and challenging, often more so, and especially when children are involved.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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