Is Former First Lady Michelle Obama the best fail-safe if President Joe Biden chooses not to run in 2024? In the latest Insight & Issues poll results, Democrat and Democrat-leaning voters seem to think so. Over 600 voters were asked last month if the Democratic presidential primary were held today, “whom would you support for the nomination?” Joe Biden handily won as the top contender of the pack with 39 percent of the vote. But who came in a not-so-close second place? Michelle Robinson Obama was beating out at least a dozen politicians, a political and cultural powerhouse with no governing experience.
So my question is… why Michelle?
Her tenure as the first African American woman to serve as First Lady of the United States was historic and helped reimagine the People’s House. But to be frank, Democratic primary voters are living in a fantasy if they genuinely consider Mrs. Obama the next best option if President Biden bows out. Given his age and the treatment he received last month for a common type of skin cancer, it’s time for voters to have a serious backup option.
The most natural successor to a Biden term would, of course, be Vice-President Kamala Harris, who came in third place with 7 percent of the voters’ support. But given the amount of negative press coverage and a 39 percent “very unfavorable” rating among US adults last month, it seems unlikely the Democratic Party would enlist her at the top of the 2024 ticket. As a tested politician with a proven track record, sharp debate skills, and experience upholding the law, why isn’t Vice-President Kamala Harris enough, but Michelle Obama is? Is it easier to vote for Michelle because she was our “hugger-in-chief” rather than Kamala because she was a prosecutor? If so, then what does that say about us?
Yes, Michelle Obama’s influence and popularity inside the Democratic Party and across the country are formidable. According to a YouGov Poll conducted in May 2020, Michelle Obama has a 55.8% popularity rating among US registered voters and is currently considered the world’s third most popular public figure. But as we learned from previous elections, popularity is not enough. Former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes. Still, he stunned the world when she fell short of capturing 270 electoral college votes—handing then-Republican candidate Donald Trump a surprising victory. Clinton’s highly probable chance of winning the election was reported across multiple media outlets, but polls failed to predict Clinton’s inability to gather enough support from white, working-class voters across the Blue Wall Midwest. Of course, comparing Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama’s popularity is unfair, given their different paths that led them to the White House. But I argue it’s worth highlighting that just because someone is a shoo-in for the nomination doesn’t necessarily mean they can win the race. Popularity and favorable polling data do not substantiate 270 electoral college votes. Voters shouldn’t nominate Mrs. Obama simply because she’s popular. They should nominate her because they believe in her legislative agenda. So what is her legislative agenda?
The most prominent example of First Lady Michelle Obama’s legislative capability was her “Let’s Move!” campaign back in 2010, which ultimately led to President Barack Obama signing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The early initiative brought national attention to childhood obesity and promoted healthier yet affordable food options for kids. The intention behind the initiative seemed like a slam dunk. However, it was met with such vitriol and animosity from food processing companies, school lunch professionals, Republicans, and of course, children posting pictures of their lunches with the #ThanksMichelleObama.
The modest signs of improvement in childhood obesity rates certainly cemented the former first lady as a public policy force. However, I can’t help but imagine the scale of criticism and smear campaigns her administration would face for demanding more military aid to Ukraine or working with Saudi Arabia to offset oil prices in the U.S. as Joe Biden did. Why is shining a light on childhood obesity so controversial? Still, voters seem to think Mrs. Obama won’t face bigger hurdles in passing foreign policy and domestic issues laws.
Are Democratic voters more concerned with the nomination rather than the longevity and practicality of a Michelle Obama presidency? I’m not sure, but it’s important for Democratic primary voters to think back to 2008 when Michelle Obama was simply a political surrogate for her husband, then-Senator Obama. Michelle publicly stated how her husband’s campaign staff advised her to tone down her mannerisms at the risk of being perceived as “angry.” The often stereotypical and racist undertone to label black women as “angry” was a well-known tactic used against her to delegitimize anything she said while advocating for her husband. The meteoric rise and ultimate victory for the Obamas since the 2008 presidential campaign proved America was ushering in a new era of “hope.” But that era still carries the burdens of racism embedded within American politics and later met with political backlash such as the rise of the Tea Party Movement, President Donald Trump’s nomination, Charlottesville, and just as recent as the expulsion (later reinstated) of two young black state lawmakers in Tennessee.
Perhaps these political ramifications led Mrs. Obama to never seriously entertain a run for public office after leaving the White House. Not only has she publicly expressed her disinterest in the job, but she has openly said how much she hates politics. And who can blame her? So, in a hypothetical scenario where President Joe Biden doesn’t run for re-election, voters shouldn’t turn to her.
Some may argue that Democratic primary voters want Michelle Obama at the top of the ticket because she’s reminiscent of the Obama years when Americans were motivated by the idea of “change.” But if we’re truly ready to elect the first female president, voters should want to vote for Michelle based on her own message and merit, not who she’s married to and what he campaigned on. To me, the idea of “a vote for Michelle is a vote for Barack” is a hollow nomination that overshadows the significance of what a President Michelle Obama White House could bring to the nation. The 2024 Democratic Presidential nomination has a chance of being as historic as 2016 or 2008, but we shouldn’t default to an option simply because we like the nominee’s spouse. And if that’s what’s motivating primary voters, then the Democratic Party is far more fractured and lost than I thought it was.
Jorge Mitssunaga is a Writer/Producer for CNN’s Smerconish. He’s been working at CNN for more than four years. Prior to CNN, Jorge worked for CBS News and interned for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He graduated from The George Washington University with a degree in Political Science. He currently lives in New York.