First Lady Michelle Obama will make her first foray into the midterm election cycle in October when she begins a series of trips that will take her to six states and end with California campaign events for House Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Barbara Boxer.
For now, the first lady's schedule is primarily focused on fundraising, partly because she generally does not travel on weekends and it is difficult to schedule rallies in the middle of the work week, senior officials said. But her events are certain to draw significant public interest.
With the first lady's favorability high — her ratings outpace her husband's by double digits — the White House clearly sees her as an effective voice for his agenda. Yet sending her into fiercely contested races is a risky decision for the White House, one which illustrates the gravity with which both the White House and Democratic leaders are approaching the Nov. 2 election.
Administration officials suggested Tuesday that the first lady's message on the campaign trail would not be overtly partisan. Her role, they said, would be similar to that of 2008, when she sought to serve as an advocate for husband's agenda rather than to attack Republicans.
"She's campaigning to advocate, to rally voters behind specific candidates based on what we can do together to build a better future," Stephanie Cutter, a senior Obama advisor, said Tuesday during a call with reporters. "She comes to this as a mom, and that's the lens through which she sees the world and that's her test for every issue — what it means for her daughters and all of our kids. One thing that she can bring perspective to, and help shine a light on, is what it is that this president is fighting for and what this president is fighting for along with Democratic senators."
To that end, officials said Michelle Obama would focus on the administration's efforts to expand the availability of loans for small businesses, make college more affordable, reform healthcare, and boost support for military families. She will also make the argument that "the country is beginning to turn a corner in terms of strengthening the middle class," a White House official said.
"She is, as you might guess, a popular ask on the campaign trail, and I think she will go out and make a forceful and positive case about what the administration has done," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said at his White House briefing after the news was announced.
The series of midweek trips will begin in mid-October with a swing through Milwaukee and Chicago for separate fundraising events for Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) and Alexi Giannoulias, who is running for Senate in Illinois, as well as three House members. The first lady then heads to Denver for a fundraising luncheon for Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), followed by a trip to New York to raise money for the DNC.
The first lady's western swing begins the week of Oct. 25 in Washington state, where she will raise money for endangered Sen. Patty Murray, and ends with three days in California where her aides said she will likely have public events. Boxer, who is tied in the polls with Republican rival Carly Fiorina, joined Obama for an event in June at Camp Pendleton where they visited with military families.
While a number of candidates nationwide are edging away from the president, there has been no such reluctance to appear with his wife, whose favorability rating stood at an enviable 66% in July. But by taking on a more partisan role, the first lady risks undoing the progress made by White House advisors in presenting her as a nonpartisan figure promoting apolitical causes: nutrition, mentoring, and anti- obesity.
Her forays also complicate the desires of some Democratic figures to avoid nationalizing the election or making it a referendum on President Obama and his policies. Aware that the president's approval ratings have dropped off considerably, they want voters to instead focus on local issues and the differences between them and their Republican opponents. By bringing the first lady into the campaign, the White House may be undercutting that message.
But there was no such reluctance from Boxer's campaign, which has been scrambling to raise money to combat her Republican opponent.
"We're thrilled that in the closing days of the campaign, the first lady will be coming to California to campaign with us and urge Californians to go to the polls," said Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer's campaign manager.
Fiorina's campaign sought to portray the visit as a troubling sign for Boxer.
"National Democrats are clearly so nervous about Californians' distaste for Barbara Boxer and her nearly three-decade political career of supporting job-killing policies and failing the people of California that they are forced to send in reinforcements to try and salvage the only job Boxer cares about — her own," Fiorina spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
In Illinois, Giannoulias said in a statement that he was "thrilled" to have the first lady come on his behalf.
"She has been an inspiration and friend to me for many years, and I look forward to campaigning with her next month," he said.
Peter Nicholas of the Tribune Washington bureau contributed to this report.