Barack Obama's Better Half
Why the first lady is so popular.
By ANDREW KOHUT
July 06, 2014
Michelle Obama is a popular first lady. On average, her favorable ratings have been higher than those of her predecessors, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. This may well reflect the fact that more so than other first ladies, Mrs. Obama has a stand-alone personal image. Unlike other recent first ladies, her popularity has not fallen or risen with her husband’s.
How popular is Michelle? A steady two-thirds of the public has held a favorable view of Mrs. Obama, according to nationwide Gallup poll and Pew Research Center surveys, for most of her time as first lady. At 69 percent, her average Pew Research Center favorable ratings have been only somewhat higher than Laura Bush’s (65 percent) but considerably higher than Hillary Clinton’s (55 percent) during Bill Clinton’s term in office.
Laura Bush was never a polarizing first lady, but views of her soured somewhat near the end of her husband’s unpopular second term. In late 2007, her favorable rating fell to 54 percent from a high of 70 percent.
Hillary’s ratings rose and fell substantially over the course of her time in the White House, reaching a low of 42 percent in early 1996 as fallout from her spearheading her husband’s unpopular health care reform effort. But they rebounded over the course of Bill Clinton’s second term, especially during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when the public rallied sympathetically to the first lady. Her ratings slipped again afterward, even as Bill’s approval ratings remained fairly high.
The arc of Michelle’s popularity is strikingly different — in fact, it’s more of a flat line than an arc. Barack’s sinking poll numbers haven’t dragged down Michelle. As the president’s approval score has ranged from the mid 50s to the low 40s, the first lady’s have oscillated around the mid to high 60s. The polls do show consistently, however, that in an era of polarization, she has been much less well liked by conservatives, Republicans and white men. Her biggest fans have been women, Democrats and African-Americans.
So why did the president’s unpopularity drag down Laura Bush’s and Hillary Clinton’s numbers but not Michelle Obama’s? In-depth polling about perceptions of her by The Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that broad segments of the public hold positive views of Michelle’s personal qualities that transcend partisanship, gender and race. Supermajorities of men and women, blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats alike see Michelle as intelligent, a good role model for women and a good mother.
And even though Republicans, white men and conservatives have held only mixed views of her overall, her strong positive image has prevented a sharp downturn in attitudes among groups that have become super critics of the president.
In short, more so than other recent first ladies, the public views Michelle Obama as her own person, and her image has not been tied closely to swings in judgments about her husband.
The numbers inevitably raise the question of what Michelle will do with her popularity — an increasingly rare asset in these hyperpartisan times. In recent weeks, as rumors circulated that she might run for Senate in Illinois, Michelle quickly quashed them, telling Robin Roberts of ABC News that her next act would be “service focused,” not political. Roberts pressed: “You sure you’re not getting into politics?” Replied Michelle: “I am positive.” White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, a longtime Obama family friend, was even more Shermanesque in a recent appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I’m absolutely 100 percent positive that will never happen.”
That seems like a pretty firm no. It should also be borne in mind that in this highly polarized era, any political move will be judged in a much more partisan way than Michelle Obama has experienced thus far — witness how Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers have slid as she has reentered the political arena. But should she change her mind, the first lady would have a strong head start.