Michelle Obama is not running for president, people close to her insist. And she’s not running for mayor of Chicago, or for Congress, or for the Board of Overseers at Harvard, where her older daughter Malia started last year. She’s made that clear, repeatedly and painstakingly, describing how she was dragged “kicking and screaming” into the political arena by a husband for whom deflecting speculation about her hypothetical political career has become a part-time job in its own right.
“I think I have as much of a chance of dancing in the Bolshoi Ballet in 2020 as the likelihood of her running for office,” says David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s former chief strategist.
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Oh, and in case that’s not clear enough: “I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever,” she writes in her new memoir, “Becoming,” released this Tuesday.
And yet: During a month in which the former first lady has launched a massive tour for her said memoir, seen the most intimate details of her personal life become breaking news notifications, and leveraged her celebrity in service of a voter outreach program that was part of the highest midterm turnout since the advent of universal suffrage, the political class still can’t cease its chatter about Michelle 2020. A recent poll featured her at the top of the heap among Democratic women facing President Trump in a theoretical 2020 matchup, beating him by a whopping 13 points. Just a day after the 2016 election, CNN’s Chris Cillizza tweeted: “Throwing it out there: Michelle Obama in 2020? It’s not totally crazy … ”
But as Hillary Clinton can attest, absence from the field of presidential candidates tends to make voters’ hearts grow fonder—once the former secretary of State, who at one point was more popular than Barack Obama or Joe Biden, declared her intention to run, she saw her ratings plummet. Or just ask her husband, who entered the White House with a not-inconsiderable 41 percent approval rating among Republicans—only to leave office with that number at 14 percent.
Then there’s the sheer soul-crushing misery of running for office in the era of 24/7 cable news, social media and Donald Trump—and the very qualities that make Michelle Obama such an appealing alternative to so many voters are what make her exceedingly unlikely to run.
“There’s a lot about politics she doesn’t like,” says Axelrod. “The coarseness, the meanness, sometimes the silliness, the focus on the trivial … I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
So why the memoir, why all the voter participation efforts, if she doesn’t want to be in the arena? The former first lady believes she can get close enough to the heart of politics to make a difference without wading into the partisan fray, people familiar with her thinking say.
“I think she’s been clear that she doesn’t have a love of politics, but [her recent activities are] her way of encouraging people to stand up for who they are and the things they feel are important,” says Susan Sher, Obama’s former chief of staff. “That’s key to her, as opposed to saying, ‘Vote for this person vs. that person.’”
In that spirit, just this year she’s launched the nonpartisan When We All Vote, aimed at boosting midterm turnout, and the Global Girls Alliance, a program through the Obama Foundation aimed at educating girls in the United States and the developing world. And, of course, there’s the rock-star-adjacent stadium tour and best-selling memoir; extra tour dates were added in Washington and Brooklyn to accommodate demand, and book retailer Barnes & Noble announced this week they haven’t seen as high demand for any book since the 2015 release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.”
In other words, when the ongoing slap-fight between Democrats and Republicans goes low, Michelle Obama plans to keep going high, hoping her megawatt celebrity can bring some of the civic goodwill that surrounded her husband’s political ascent back to a bitterly divided country. If Democrats are looking for a savior to deliver them from Trump, it won’t be her.
Although she’s been reluctant to wade into Democratic politics, it can hardly be said that Michelle Obama has remained neutral since leaving the White House—and every time she’s fired back at the Trump administration, it’s only made the calls more fervent for her to throw down the gauntlet and challenge Republicans at the polls. When Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in May 2017 delayed a requirement for healthier school lunches that she’d championed as part of her Let’s Move! health campaign, she fired back on all cylinders at a public conference: “Think about why someone is OK with your kids eating crap … if somebody is doing that, they don’t care about your kid.”
The subject of children’s health and welfare is clearly close to Obama’s heart—the Let’s Move! initiative was her first major endeavor as first lady, and she writes in “Becoming” of how personally the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre affected her and the former president.
“She was the mom-in-chief, and people absolutely adored that,” says Democratic strategist and pollster Celinda Lake. “She’s had a 10-year conversation with the American public, and they’ve valued what she’s said because she uses her voice selectively; she hasn’t been out there every five minutes using her voice in a political way.”
Her occasional tetchiness at Trump aside, Obama has mostly maintained that equilibrium in her post-White House political life. Her unique ability to critique Trump’s worldview, as she did in September after the president’s “America First” remarks at the United Nations General Assembly, while maintaining her benevolent aura is exactly why some think she’d be such a formidable candidate (Cillizza once referred to her as the president’s “kryptonite”). Despite their constant rebuffing, the calls for her to run are ubiquitous for a reason—YouGov ranks her as the third-most popular American in the world, behind only Bill Gates and her husband, and the most popular person in the world full stop among millennials.
“I have a lot of respect for her dislike of politics, but I wish she would run,” sighs Lake. “She would be an unparalleled leader, but she’ll be one in whichever realm she chooses.”
“She would be amazing [as a candidate],” gushes Andrea Steele, president and founder of Democratic nonprofit Emerge America. “I’d love to see her be recruiter-in-chief now … maybe she doesn’t want to run, but she could be a tremendous recruiter in all of these cities [on her book tour], if she made the pitch.”
Lynda Tran of the progressive firm 270 Strategies underscored the weight a figure like Obama carries on the stump for Democrats, where she was absent this year in favor of When We All Vote’s nonpartisan outreach efforts.
“There’s probably no better surrogate on the campaign trial, no better ally to have onstage than Michelle Obama,” says Tran. “You’d be crazy as a Democratic candidate if you didn’t want to have Michelle standing next to you.”
Those in Obama’s camp, however, believe an effort that reaches more than just dyed-in-the-wool Democrats will be more effective in the long run—and more in line with her personal goals and mission.
“We wanted to make sure [When We All Vote’s] reach was as broad as it could be,” says Tina Tchen, Obama’s former chief of staff in the East Wing and treasurer of the nonprofit today. “We partnered with a lot of college voter registration efforts, we wanted to make sure make sure we could go into all sorts of settings … that was the idea, making sure the reach was as broad as it could and doing it in a nonpartisan way.”
“Participation was the aim,” says Axelrod. “And, you know, to the extent that her efforts went [with When We All Vote], they were successful, because we saw the greatest midterm turnout in a century.” When We All Vote can’t quantify exactly how many voters it registered and turned out, but a post-midterm statement from the group’s CEO, Kyle Lierman, boasted of reaching more than 220 million individuals via social media and reaching over 3.7 million voters via text.
Of course, when voter participation spikes, it happens to benefit Democrats more than their opponents, a fact that’s surely not lost on Obama and her allies. But the nonpartisan approach is largely in line with how she and the former president have approached his post-presidency, with only the occasional glancing shot at the current occupant of the Oval Office.
“A huge part of her brand and emphasis was on what are fundamental American values—inclusiveness, fighting for a better future for our children and families,” says Tran. “These are all things that are aspirational goals, regardless of your side of the aisle.”
Of course, it’s one thing to espouse the values of unity, inclusiveness, and civic responsibility—it’s another entirely to successfully sell voters on their value. Modern political history is littered with the footnotes of otherwise milquetoast political figures hoping to appeal to an idealized American identity; the Obamas’ enduring popularity comes from their ability to do it well.
To what, then, can you ascribe Michelle’s ability to act as such an effective messenger even if her message is fairly ethereal? Both Obama world insiders and Democratic onlookers had largely the same response, which could be boiled down to one word—a trait she paradoxically shares with Trump, who rode his tell-it-like-it-is persona into the White House:
“She’s very authentic,” says Tchen.
“She’s an authentic, passionate, hip person,” says Axelrod.
“We often talk about authenticity in politics, and she’s definitely authentic,” says Tran.
“I think that I’ve known her for something like 27 years, and she’s exactly the same person,” says Sher.
And so on.
So if Michelle Obama’s not running, but she’s got what it takes to defeat Trump, is there anyone else in the Democratic Party who does, too? Several Democratic insiders referred to the same troika of Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams.
But it’s hard to see how any of them could carve out a path to the presidency, and that’s why the calls for Michelle Obama to run, however futile, will probably keep coming even as her friends keep shooting them down.
“Would she be great? Yes,” says Sher. “But it wouldn’t be fair to her. I do not think she should run for office.”