First lady happy to embrace role as hugger-in-chief

Wed, Sep 5, 2012, 01:00

Michelle Obama uses hugs to make herself more accessible, writes JODY KANTORin North Carolina

THIS IS how Michelle Obama delivers a hug: the nearly 6ft-tall first lady envelopes her target, her long arms often wrapping all the way around the recipient’s back. She leans in close, unafraid to press her body against a stranger’s. Working crowds with her husband, she sometimes falls behind him, because he is more of a hand-shaker or high-fiver, and in the second-to-second choreography of a rope line, the Michelle Obama hug takes time.

That hug, half motherly embrace and half papal benediction, has become a minor phenomenon. Many of the first lady’s events end with marathon hugging sessions, because people now hope to get one. At the Olympics, the US men’s basketball team lined up for hugs, the sweaty giants waiting their turns like meek children. When she gave the queen of England a mere half-hug, Britain went wild. Meeting wounded soldiers, the first lady delivers solemn, private hugs. And all summer she has hugged her way across the country on behalf of her husband’s campaign, drawing volunteers, donors, staff and potential converts near.

“Sometimes her staff will roll their eyes, like okay, here we go, because if there are 50 people who need to be hugged, she will hug them all,” said Samantha Appleton, until recently a White House photographer.

Those hugs are a useful metaphor for how Obama approaches the roles of first lady and campaign surrogate. A Harvard-trained lawyer, trying to win votes and high approval ratings, she offers intimacy without revelation. Her signature gesture is striking but safe and is the approach she would have displayed last night when she addressed the Democratic National Convention.

Behind the scenes, Obama’s advocacy for her husband can be so forceful that speechwriters have had to tone it down for public presentation, aides say. But despite the scathing critiques of Republicans that she delivers in private, her advisers believe she is most potent when she does not appear overtly political and that she comes across best as a gracious noncombatant in the red-and-blue wars.

Obama has told advisers she uses the hugs to make herself less intimidating despite her position and height – to “narrow the gap”, said Katie McCormick Lelyveld, her former press secretary. The hug is not a political tactic, aides say, but an expression of a desire to connect and include.

One of the first big White House hugfests was in 2009, at the kickoff event for a mentoring programme that Michelle Obama started for high school girls in Washington. Few of them had ever been to the White House, let alone at a meeting with the first lady. “She eliminated that panic and anxiety that the girls had by hugging them,” Appleton said.

It is hard to remember another first lady who appeared as comfortable in her own body as does Obama, who studied dance as a girl and later served on the board of an African dance company. She has shimmied, skipped, hopscotched, hula-hooped, jumping-jacked and potato-sack-raced her way through her tenure as first lady, using not just her position but her body to push for more exercise and better nutrition for children.

She is fighting an obesity crisis and trying to convince corporations to change products and advertising, yet she sticks to a mom-in-chief tone.

On an official visit to South Africa last year, she dropped to the floor for push-ups with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and during her recent Olympic foray, she allowed wrestler Elena Pirozhkova to lift her clean off the ground.

Choreographer Bill T Jones, commenting on how the first lady uses her body as an instrument of communication, said: “She is someone you can literally feel you know.”

Her embraces and other stunts, though, make it easy to miss her ironclad discipline and tightly planned operation. She has become an expert at campaigning-without-campaigning, arriving at the London Olympics just as Romney also appeared there, sitting on late-night couches fielding gentle questions from hosts.

But she has also done real political work for her husband – stumping in 2008 and learning message discipline the hard way and although she was hugely popular, she made verbal gaffes that allowed critics to cast her as aggrieved.

She promoted his healthcare plan in 2009, although to keep her popularity high, advisers limited her association with the divisive initiative.

And for the past year, Obama has been a central figure in her husband’s campaign – exhorting supporters to donate and volunteer, stating his argument for re-election in simple, jargon-free terms.

When she’s campaigning, Obama approaches the task like an Olympic gymnast tackling a routine: she practises relentlessly, and, come performance time, she executes according to plan. She often speaks from a teleprompter even at small events, and varies just a few words from stop to stop.

She has reason not to take risks, even beyond the fact that she was caricatured during the 2008 campaign. Throughout her time in the White House, she and her advisers have carefully protected her image; she knew her husband would need her for re-election from early on, aides say. So she has mostly avoided controversy, highly aware that any mistake on her part could cost her husband. In a polarised country with close presidential contests, no other choice makes sense.

“Who can be opposed to a hug from a tall, beautiful woman?” said Kati Marton, author of Hidden Power, about presidential marriages. “In this divisive climate, to be the hugger-in-chief is all that our first lady can do.”

--– (New York Times)