By James Hohmann – – – – – – –With Breanne Deppisch
THE BIG IDEA: The crowd cried “no” when Michelle Obama, campaigning for Hillary Clinton in Pittsburgh yesterday, said that “it’s almost time for my family to end our time at the White House.”
The first lady—working hard to get millennial, minority and female voters to rally behind a Democratic nominee whom she battled so fiercely eight years ago—tried to assuage them.
“It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay,” she said. “Look, two terms is a good thing for the country! Right? Two terms is good. And we’re not going anywhere! We’re going to keep working and doing our good stuff. So we will be near.”
“We love you, Michelle,” a member of the audience yelled out, and the crowd cheered. Then someone else yelled to ask what will happen to Sunny and Bo, the first pets.
— Mrs. Obama received a rock star’s reception at both colleges she visited Wednesday in the Keystone State’s two urban centers. In fact, the crowd’s energy level felt higher at the 52-year-old First Lady’s events than during a joint rally in New Hampshire with Hillary Clinton, 68, and Bernie Sanders, 75.
There were also more people. Michelle drew 3,600 to La Salle University in Philadelphia and 3,000 more to the University of Pittsburgh a few hours later. Clinton and Sanders got 1,200 at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, where they spoke about college affordability.
— Watching the crowd’s reaction to Michelle begged the question: why again didn’t she run for Senate in Illinois the way HRC did in New York in 2000? She would have cleared the Democratic primary field and totally annihilated Republican incumbent Mark Kirk (almost certainly by a bigger margin than the overrated Tammy Duckworth will).
The answer is that the Princeton- and Harvard Law-educated mother of two does not want to be an elected official. And frankly, that’s the core of her appeal. Because she has less of a political patina than her husband and because you know she does not need to be there for Hillary the way he does, she comes across as more authentic.
This dynamic helps explain why so many people were so moved by her hug with George W. Bush:
“As someone who doesn’t do a lot of politics, the first lady has a particularly powerful voice for undecided voters and she has a particular appeal with young people,” Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri said during a gaggle on Hillary’s plane between events. “But it’s not limited to young people. And we saw in the convention, she takes the argument for why Hillary’s the right person for our kids to a high moral ground that is very compelling.”
— Moreover, the first lady is not dragged down by the dramas and controversies that inherently bog down any president. Yesterday, for example, was a rough day for Barack Obama:
For the first and probably only time of his eight year presidency,Congress voted overwhelmingly to override POTUS’ veto of a bill that will let the families of 9/11 victims sue Saudi Arabia.
He then faced a series of tough, pointed questions from military personnel and veterans during a town hall that aired last night on CNN. At an Army base near Richmond, they pressed him on his refusal to use the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” his decision to open combat jobs up to women and the performance of the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Greg Jaffe has the blow-by-blow.)
Finally, the outgoing commander-in-chief had to make the politically difficult announcement that he is sending 600 more troops into Iraq. In 2011, he believed a big part of his legacy would be ending the war there. Now there are 5,000 U.S. troops preparing to assist an offensive to retake Mosul in the coming weeks.
— Michelle, meanwhile, got to take a victory lap. She was at her best when eviscerating Donald Trump for leading the birther movement and now refusing to apologize. She holds back less than the president when addressing the conspiracy theories that he was not born in the United States. “There are those who questioned and continue to question for the past eight years whether my husband was even born in this country. And let me say: hurtful, deceitful questions deliberately designed to undermine his presidency — questions that cannot be blamed on others or swept under the rug by an insincere sentence uttered at a press conference.”
— Just like at the convention, she never mentioned Donald by name but no one could mistake exactly whose “erratic and threatening” behavior she was talking about. “We need an adult in the White House,”she said. “Experience matters. Preparation matters. Temperament matters. … The presidency is not an apprenticeship.”
Then Michelle referenced the issues du jour from last Monday’s debate: “If a candidate thinks that not paying taxes makes you smart, or thinks that it’s good business when people lose their homes; if a candidate regularly and flippantly makes cruel and insulting comments about women, about how we look, about how we act, well, sadly, that’s who that candidate really is.”
— The first lady also passionately made the case that a vote for a third-party candidate is tantamount to a vote for Trump. There is no “perfect candidate,” she said. “When I hear folks say they don’t feel inspired, I have to disagree. Either Hillary Clinton or her opponent will be elected president this year. And if you vote for someone other than Hillary or if you don’t vote at all, you are helping to elect Hillary’s opponent.”
— The Trump campaign argued in a statement that FLOTUS’s swing shows Clinton is in “panic mode” about Pennsylvania. The first lady, trying to shake a sense of urgency into a mostly college-aged audience, agreed that the election is “going to be close.” She noted that Barack won Pennsylvania by about 300,000 votes, but that breaks down to 17 votes per precinct.
— In some ways, Michelle is reprising the role she played in 2008 as her husband’s main emissary on college campuses. Her speeches yesterday were similar – with a few newsy sections added in – to what she said two weeks ago at George Mason University in Virginia during her solo debut on the trail.
But for someone who has been so reluctant to enter the political fray, she really is going all in. Michelle’s two appearances came the same day that the Clinton campaign went up with a commercial featuring her making a direct-to-camera appeal. “Our children watch everything we do,” she says. “Hillary will be a president our kids can look up to.”
FLOTUS has become almost ubiquitous in the home stretch of this campaign. She is on the October covers of both InStyle and Essence magazines, for instance, and she appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show last week.
— Polls show she is popular generally but especially so with constituencies critical to Clinton’s victory. Two in three American adults viewed her favorably in an August Gallup poll. In a Fox News poll last month, 54 percent of women said they felt strongly favorable toward her, with an additional 13 percent saying they felt somewhat favorable. “Between Trump’s string of negative comments about women — comments the Clinton campaign has documented in a series of TV ads — and his current fight with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, Michelle Obama’s harsh words for the Republican nominee could take an already difficult situation for him and make it that much worse,” my colleague Chris Cillizza writes.
— What a difference two years make.
Yesterday morning, Barack Obama called into Steve Harvey’s radio show to say this his “legacy is on the ballot” in November. “The notion somehow that, ‘Well, you know, I’m not as inspired because Barack and Michelle, they’re not on the ballot this time and, you know, maybe we kinda take it easy’ — my legacy is on the ballot,” POTUS said, repeating the phrase twice for maximum impact.
The Fix’s Aaron Blake notes that Obama made a very similar point almost two years before to the day. “Make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot,” he said during a speech. “Every single one of them.” During the midterms, with his approval rating underwater and the battle for the Senate mostly playing out in red states, Republicans used the sound bite in dozens of commercials. Congressional Democrats grumbled. The media covered it as a gaffe.
Now that the main challenge is activating the base, some of the Democrats who were peeved two years ago want the president to say it more often and more loudly.
Guy Cecil was the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2014 cycle, when vulnerable incumbents ran so far away from the president that they ultimately hurt themselves with the base. It wasn’t just red states like Arkansas but purple ones like North Carolina, where many African Americans stayed home.
Cecil now runs Priorities USA, the Clinton super PAC. The group yesterday went on the air in Ohio, North Carolina and Florida with a 30-second ad built entirely around Obama’s speech to the Congressional Black Caucus earlier this month, in which the president said he will “consider it a personal insult … if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election.” WATCH: