Michelle Obama: A Secret Weapon

Michelle Obama (Lee Celano/Getty Images News)
Michelle Obama (Lee Celano/Getty Images News)

(The Root) — During the last midterm elections when candidates in tough races found themselves in trouble, Democrats dispatched their secret weapon: Michelle Obama. The first lady campaigned in a number of states for candidates. She did so in part because her schedule made it easier for her than her husband, but also because, as has been the case through most of her husband's tenure as president, polling confirmed that she was significantly more popular than he was.


So once again Michelle Obama is being dispatched to salvage a struggling campaign. Only this time the campaign isn't for a candidate but for her husband's defining policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act.

The rollout of the ACA website has been, without question, an unmitigated disaster. A quick Google search of "Obamacare rollout disaster" produces more than 11 million results. With a backlash against glitches on the site gaining momentum, the president held a press conference in which he said, "But the problem has been that the website that's supposed to make it easy to apply for and purchase the insurance is not working the way it should for everybody. And there's no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow; people have been getting stuck during the application process.

"And I think it's fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am — precisely because the product is good, I want the cash registers to work. I want the checkout lines to be smooth. So I want people to be able to get this great product. And there's no excuse for the problems, and these problems are getting fixed."

Despite the president's best efforts to try to put a cheery spin on things, the negative headlines about Obamacare are putting the Republican-led government shutdown in the rearview mirror. And that means Democrats could lose momentum heading into midterm elections. 

Enter Michelle Obama. 

For the first time on the record, she came out swinging on a number of topics, among them who is to blame for the government shutdown and the importance of Obamacare. During her remarks last week at the Democratic National Committee's Women's Leadership Forum, she said of the Affordable Care Act, "And I think it's important for us to all remember who exactly is benefiting from this new law. They are folks who come from all across the country, who come from all different backgrounds and walks of life. They're the spouses of our veterans — folks who are working around the clock caring for their loved ones wounded in war, yet who don't have insurance themselves."


She went on to add, "They're folks with preexisting conditions — women who had breast cancer years ago, folks who had asthma as a kid, people who've been turned away from insurance again and again. The single mother who lost her job. The couple who are both working jobs that don't provide insurance. The folks who are paying too much for their current plan and just need a better deal. 

"So many of these people have been living from emergency to emergency. They've been ignoring their symptoms and just praying that nothing goes wrong. And now, finally, because of all of you, because you helped elect Barack Obama president, these people finally have some hope — because of you."


The first lady then directly addressed Obamacare's critics, saying, "So when a small group of folks in Congress shuts down our government to try to shut down Obamacare, and we watch as our president stands strong, that's not just some political fight in Washington; it is a battle about our most fundamental values and aspirations. See, your president believes that here in America, no matter how you start out, if you're willing to work for it, if you're willing to sacrifice for it, you should be able to build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids. That's the American Dream that we all believe in. And we don't believe in handouts. We don't think anyone should get a free ride."

This speech was not a coincidence in its timing. Most likely it was intended as a test run to see how Michelle Obama, mom-in-chief turned Obamacare defender-in-chief, will be received in the media. If her remarks are favorably received, we will likely see her taking her message on the road in an effort to salvage what is turning from her husband's greatest policy victory to a policy albatross.


If anyone can do it she can. While a Pew poll earlier this year found nearly two-thirds of Americans hold a favorable view of the first lady, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll, only half hold a favorable opinion of her husband. But those numbers are still much better than the chief opponents of Obamacare: the GOP. The same poll found that 63 percent of Americans hold an unfavorable view of them, while nearly 40 percent of Americans hold a strongly unfavorable view.

This means that while the Affordable Care Act may have gotten off to a disastrous start, the image problem of its chief foes is an even bigger disaster, meaning all is not lost. But only if the Obama administration does something it has admitted that it did poorly in the initial introduction of the Affordable Care Act: Communicate how it benefits Americans much more effectively. 


Michelle Obama did that in her recent speech. If she takes her show on the road, she may be able to save her husband's legacy from disaster. 

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter