First lady gets ready to take centre stage

Following her recent high-profile campaign blitz during the midterm elections, talk of Michelle Obama running for the US Senate is gaining momentum on Capitol Hill, writes Bette Browne

First lady gets ready to take centre stage

Could Michelle Obama follow the trail blazed by Hillary Clinton and run for the US Senate? The talk in Washington is that Clinton may not be the only one pondering a momentous political decision.

The idea has been floated before and rejected at the time by the US first family but now it’s emerged again and is gathering steam.

One scenario has Michelle Obama running for a US Senate seat in her native Illinois in 2016, seeking to oust Republican senator Mark Kirk. Another has her running for a seat in California, when Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein is expected to retire in 2018 when she’ll be 85.

But the thinking in Washington is that if Obama is considering running, the best time to do so is while she still has a strong political and public profile and before her husband leaves office in January 2017, two months after the 2016 presidential election.

Thus, 2016 and Chicago would make more sense than 2018 and California, according to Stella O’Leary, president of the Irish-American Democrats lobby group, who knows a thing or two about first ladies running for political office since she was a prime mover behind Clinton’s decision in 2000 to run for a Senate seat.

“I have been pushing this idea [of Michelle Obama running] for the past couple of years and it just recently gathered steam,” says O’Leary. “I think she should run in 2016 for Mark Kirk’s seat.

“My experience is that it’s always better to run when you are in the news and in an active political position, rather than from retirement. I felt Hillary should have run for the presidency in 2004.”

Adding weight to the Illinois scenario is the fact that the Obamas have remained residents of Chicago, voting there and maintaining a million-dollar home in the city. However, earlier this year the Wall Street Journal reported that real estate brokers in California have claimed that Obama-appointed representatives have inspected houses in Palm Springs on the family’s behalf.

In any case, residency rules for those running for the US senate are not stringent. A US senator is required to be an ‘inhabitant’ of the state in which he or she is elected but the constitution does not specify how long a senate candidate must reside in the state in order to run. “From all I hear, their plans are to have homes in Chicago and DC,” says O’Leary.

But there are plenty of sceptics, too. One observer of Illinois politics pointed out that encouraging the notion that an Obama might be running against him would fire up his supporters and help pump up Kirk’s fundraising efforts.

Indeed, the Republican senator wasn’t shy of inferring that point himself in his campaign literature recently. A fundraising letter, according to the Chicago-Sun Times, compares Obama’s potential run to speculation in 1999 over whether then-first lady Clinton would run for the Senate. He also writes in the letter that he is “not one to believe rumours or engage in political gossip” but he takes “all potential threats seriously.”

He then gets to the nub of the issue: “Help me fend off a challenge from a Democratic opponent who will be backed by the national Democrat party as well as the home state political operation of the president.”

Kirk can also boast a compelling story. In January 2012, he suffered a stroke and, after a year of rehabilitation, returned to work by climbing the 45 steps of the US Capitol on January 3, 2013, as colleagues from both sides of the aisle cheered.

And, by all accounts, it would not be an easy seat for Obama to win, though O’Leary is confident about the first lady’s chances.

“I’m not sure she would run for Feinstein’s seat in California but I feel confident she could beat Kirk,” says O’Leary.

“She is very popular, a woman, has issues that appeal to the young — although they are the worst at getting out to vote. She is very smart, could raise the money and has become an increasingly better public speaker.”

Certainly, she managed to fire up depressed Democrats in the recent midterm elections. While her unpopular husband was shunned by nervous Democrats, the first lady went on a 15-state blitz to get out the vote.

Even though the Democrats ended up being trounced by the Republicans, who seized control of both houses of Congress, Michelle won high marks for her passion and commitment during the campaign.

She is also a huge fundraising draw and would have the Obama political machine behind her. Back in December 2012 a Public Policy Polling survey put her ahead of Kirk, 51% to 40%.

The Obamas are pouring cold water on the notion of another Senator Obama from Illinois. Yet both of them have been around politics long enough to know that what seems politically impossible one day can still morph into a reality. Becoming the first black president of a still racially troubled nation is proof of that.

Both of the Obamas are young — he’s 53, she’s 50 — and they will hardly be likely to take a back seat in politics in the years ahead. 2016 will be a time of major changes for the family — he will be stepping down as president and daughters Malia and Sasha will be much older. Malia will be on her way to college at 18 and Sasha will be in her last years at high school at 15. So, all in all, perhaps not a bad time for Michelle to ponder her next move.

Certainly, if she were to decide to run she would be a formidable candidate. A lawyer and an intellectual powerhouse, she excelled at Princeton and Harvard Law School, where she met her husband whom she married in 1992. She undoubtedly lacks political credentials. But so did another first lady before she went on to become US senator for New York. So there’s a tried and tested template already out there.

Then there is her own personal story, one that would have enormous appeal on the US campaign trail. Her journey from a family history of slavery to the White House in five generations as the descendant of an Irish immigrant slave owner in the South is certainly an extraordinary one.

Now the story could well have another extraordinary chapter.

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