Once portrayed as unpatriotic, Michelle Obama has quietly carved a niche on the campaign trail as a sounding board for military families, taking up a cause that could define her agenda as first lady.
Every few weeks, Obama meets with military spouses in swing states, where she presents herself as a kindred spirit and Barack Obama as the best choice for their families. She attended the two debates with military family members. And at the Democratic National Convention, she led a day of service on behalf of Blue Star Families for Obama, a two-month old group with the tagline: “Pro-Military, Pro-Obama.”
Obama aides say her work with military families has nothing to do with the controversy created by her February comment suggesting that the presidential campaign made her proud of the United States for the first time. But the effort could be viewed as an exercise in counterprogramming, serving as a rebuttal to criticism from Cindy McCain and others for a comment that Michelle Obama insists was misinterpreted - and the notion that her husband, a Democrat with no military service, cannot peel off voters from John McCain, an ex-Navy pilot and war hero.
“Barack and I know that too often it feels like you are alone, on your own,” Obama told military spouses last month in Santa Fe, N.M. “I know you become everything. In a small way, I have experienced that over the course of this campaign, but in no way does it compare to what you are going through.”
Michelle Obama's focus on military families puts her at the leading edge of the Democratic nominee's campaign to reclaim some of the military vote from Republicans - an effort that brought Barack Obama here Sunday for a rally near Fort Bragg, where a military wife introduced him and he touted his endorsement from Colin Powell, the retired four-star general and President George W. Bush's first Secretary of State.
Since the start of the campaign, Michelle Obama says she has focused on three things: keeping life normal for her young daughters, electing her husband, and discussing the work-life balance with women around the country. The spouses of service members captured her attention during a roundtable with working mothers, and she later hosted her first military-focused event in Fayetteville in May, a day before the North Carolina primary.
She will hold her seventh military spouses meeting Tuesday in Pensacola, Fla., following similar events in recent months in states heavily impacted by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, including Virginia, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.
At each roundtable, she sits on stage with several spouses, delivers prepared remarks and opens a discussion. The roundtables draws local media coverage, and she answers questions about her involvement when asked by national reporters, as she did during an interview with CNN at the Democratic convention.
“Mostly I am here to listen and to do a lot of learning and then to transfer that information into the heart and mind of my husband as he moves forth,” Michelle Obama said in Norfolk, Va., in August. “The commander in chief doesn’t just need to know how to lead the military, he needs to understand what war does to military families.”
Her work in this area offers a hint at what could dominate her time in the White House.
“If she becomes first lady, this will be her cause,” said Amanda McBreen, 47, a Marine wife who participated in the Norfolk roundtable and helps coordinate 24 state chapters of Blue Star Families for Obama.
Michelle Obama pledged to do so in the Oct. 27 issue of U.S. News and World Report, when she explained what she would do if her husband became president: “I would work daily on the issues closest to my heart: helping working women and families, particularly military families. … I'd continue these conversations with working women and military spouses,and I'd take their stories back to Washington to make sure that the people who run our country know how their policies touch their constituents' lives.”