Nowhere in the world do the spouses of political candidates play a larger role than in the United States. And while it may still seem jarring to some campaign-watchers, the first lady and the would-be first lady are central actors in this year’s presidential campaign, singing their husbands’ praises.
Both President Barack Obama and (especially) Mitt Romney suffer from perceptions that they’re aloof, and struggle to convey a sense of warmth and to explain their own merits or accomplishments. That, it seems, is where their wives come in: both Michelle Obama and Ann Romney got prominent roles at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and they are expected to be out on the hustings through the fall. Each campaign will be asking a lot of two women who are not – in theory – politicians.
Humanize the candidate
Ms. Obama offered a glowing character reference of the President – a loving husband and a doting father whose essential character and convictions have not changed since he came to the White House. She described him “hunched over his desk, poring over the letters” of struggling Americans, and brought smiles to the faces of the audience with her description of the rusty old car he used to pick her up for dates when they were young.
Help sell the candidate’s achievements
Mr. Obama has said he focused too much on policy and not enough on communicating a clear narrative to the public during his first term. He should have talked things over with Ms. Obama. In her convention speech, she proved an able communicator, weaving the audience a story of how her husband set out to address the day-to-day concerns of Americans about the cost of health care and student loans, and bringing the economy back from the “brink of collapse.”
Show triumph over adversity
Ms. Obama has spoken before about her working-class roots – growing up in Chicago’s South Side with a stay-at-home mom and a dad who continued working as a city water plant worker after he was diagnosed with MS. Add to that the President’s story of being “raised by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills,” as she said in her speech, and she has an “up from adversity” narrative that appealed to voters four years ago and could again.
Stay above the fray
Attacking Mr. Romney personally is not Ms. Obama’s style. But, then again, she doesn’t have to. By talking about her and her husband’s personal histories, she can obliquely but clearly draw a contrast with the Romneys. As New York Times reporter Nick Confessore put it in a tweet after her convention speech: “Pretty deft: A ferocious attack on Mitt Romney disguised as a heartwarming tale about Barack Obama.”
Fire up the base
Mr. Obama has tried on the campaign trail to reignite the passion of supporters. But the President is too closely tied to the country’s economy, joblessness and a feeling that he did not fulfill his promise. His wife can help divert some of that disappointment, in large part because the weight of responsibility to sort out the country’s problems does not fall on her.
Court the female vote
Mr. Obama holds a significant advantage over his rival when it comes to the support of female voters. But in battleground states where the margin of victory will inevitably be narrow, appealing to independent female voters is going to be key. Ms. Obama could be the key to easing female voters turned off by the GOP take on social issues off the fence and back in to the Obama camp.
Work the talk-show circuit
Ms. Obama has done the Top 10 on the David Letterman show. Her No. 1 fun fact about gardening: “With enough care and effort you can grow your own Barack-oli,” she said, holding up a broccoli in the shape of the President’s head. To promote her Let’s Move initiative, she went up against another late night talk show host, Jimmy Fallon, in a potato-sack race. When she’s not making viewers chuckle, she channels clarity, thoughtfulness and emotion.
Rein in problematic instincts
Ms. Obama had a rocky start in her husband’s first presidential campaign four years ago: She was accused of being un-American after her comment that “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.” She worked hard to correct that image and recent polls show her favourability rating among Americans at 66 per cent, 16 points higher than her husband’s. In fact, she might be able to help some of her husband’s own problematic instincts to go off-script.