The emails to Michelle Obama began flooding in minutes after she spoke out at an October rally in New Hampshire, her voice shaking, about Donald J. Trump’s treatment of women. Sexual assault victims recounted their trauma, fathers poured out anxieties about unhealthy influences on their sons, and a distraught parent agonized over how to explain rape to a 10-year-old.
The next morning in the East Wing, a first lady who had spent years in the White House staying away from politics sorted through a thick sheaf of printed messages — a selection of the 600 she had already received, an amount that would triple by the end of the day — and realized there was an unlikely finale for her.
Mrs. Obama had become the breakout voice of Campaign 2016.
Dismissed early on by critics as an angry black woman unsuited for the tradition-bound role of first lady, she has emerged this fall as Hillary Clinton’s most popular surrogate, with soaring approval ratings that cut across party lines. Reluctant at first to engage in partisan politics, and conflicted when her husband decided to seek the presidency, Mrs. Obama has, almost in spite of herself, evolved into a powerful presence on the campaign trail.
“She has ended up to be the most effective and reassuring antidote to Trump that we have, and the best at making that contrast,” said Jennifer Palmieri, Mrs. Clinton’s communications director.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said that Mrs. Obama had a special voice for women. “This isn’t a politician’s articulation of what’s going on here,” Ms. Lake said. “This isn’t a man’s articulation. It is a woman who never asked for this platform using it to say what she thinks.”
Mrs. Obama, 52, is no stranger to speaking her mind. A Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer who was forced to give up her career as a hospital executive with a $250,000-plus salary when Mr. Obama won the presidency, she nevertheless set about conforming to the traditional job of first lady. As the first black woman in the role, she was well aware from the start that there would be little margin for error.
She declared herself the “mom in chief.” She took on unassailable causes like healthy eating, exercise and military families. Despite the couture she wore to state dinners and the glamorous White House parties she threw with guests like Beyoncé, Mrs. Obama cultivated an unpretentious image by dispensing hugs rather than handshakes and kicking off her shoes to dance with local children on official trips abroad.
Inside the White House, the image is different: Mrs. Obama has come to be adored but feared in the East Wing as a tough and exacting boss who has little patience for mistakes, improvisation and wasted time. But her discipline and intensity have paid off in her success as first lady, staff members say.
The discipline extends to her daughters, who have been required to play a sport of their mother’s choosing in addition to one of their own and are barred from television or computer entertainment on school nights. Mrs. Obama has worked only two to three days a week to allow her to spend time with them and only participates in activities she regards as “value added.” She rarely grants an interview unless she thinks there is a compelling reason, such as a link to one of her initiatives. She declined to be interviewed for this article.
“We should do things that matter to us and matter to the country, but we don’t have to do everything,” Mrs. Obama told her staff shortly after her husband’s election.
That rarely included campaign politics. Until now.
“She’s gained confidence,” said Melissa Winter, her deputy chief of staff, who joined Mrs. Obama’s team in 2007. “I think she ultimately enjoys it more than she thought she might.”
When in 2003, State Senator Barack Obama of Illinois announced his campaign for the United States Senate at a news conference in a Chicago hotel, Mrs. Obama did not attend. When he weighed a run for the White House four years later, she resisted. Once she finally gave her consent, she was parsimonious in her time on the campaign trail.
Source: The New York Times | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS