First Lady Michelle Obama is back on the fund-raising circuit and she’s painting a very flattering picture of her hubby.
“See, what you all need to know about the President you helped to elect is that when it comes to the people he meets, Barack has a memory like a steel trap,” she told her eager audience at a sold-out breakfast fund-raiser at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, Calif., on June 14.
“He has a gift in that way, able to retain information, know more than those who are briefing him, asking critical questions, because all of those wins and losses are not wins and losses for him [but] they are wins and losses for the folks whose stories he carries with him, the folks that he worries about and prays about before he goes to bed at night,” she said, according to a White House transcript of the speech.
She stuck to the script at her lunchtime fundraiser in the tony Julia Morgan ballroom in San Francisco. “Your President is a special person, because when it comes to the people he meets, Barack has a memory like a steel trap,” she repeated. “That is where Barack gets his passion… that’s why he works so hard every day, first thing in the morning, late into the night …reading every word, making notes and writing questions, and being better prepared than the people briefing him, because all those wins and losses are not wins and losses [just] for him.”
In contrast, Laura Bush offered much less grandiose compliments for her husband, and therefore his supporters. “We want a President who is strong and steady and compassionate, and who keeps his word, and I’m so proud that my husband is that kind of leader… He believes that it’s his duty, the responsibility of every leader, to find solutions to problems, not pass them on to future Presidents or future generations,” she declared at a October 28, 2004 speech in Florida’s Port St. Lucie.
Ms. Bush also added some unflattering, but crowd-pleasing, stories. “George and I were visiting his parents in Maine for the 4th of July… And George sat on the sofa and put his feet up on the coffee table. And all of a sudden, [his mother] Barbara Bush hollered, ‘Put your feet down.’ George’s dad said, ‘For goodness sake, Bar, he’s the President of the United States.’ And Bar replied, ‘I don’t care — I don’t want his feet on my coffee table.’ So you see, even Presidents have to listen to their mother.”
The first ladies’ speeches are very different because the speakers and audiences want very different things.
Laura Bush could make a joke at George W.‘s expense because “they love to laugh … and that’s part of their identity, so the audience responds well to speeches that remind everyone of their humanity,” said Charlie Fern, a former journalist who wrote speeches for Laura Bush while she was the First Lady of Texas and of the United States. But “the Obamas are serious and they don’t joke around much… and if you tried to write a joke for them they wouldn’t deliver it well,” especially when an audience is worried about the economy, said Fern, who worked briefly as an aide to Governor Ann Richards, Bush’s Democratic predecessor.
That seriousness is displayed in the First Lady’s speeches to audiences of fellow professionals. Those speeches feature a resume-like list of political accomplishments, and are accompanied by little humor and few personal stories. “My husband signed the Affordable Care Act, as you know, which makes it easier for millions — millions of Americans to afford a doctor… We’ve held forums and launched pilot programs to promote workplace flexibility because we know, all of us, that flexible workplaces translates into more productive workers, more satisfied employers, and more importantly a robust economy. We all know that… My husband nominated two phenomenal women — Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan — to the Supreme Court. (Applause.) … He has made women nearly half of his nominees to the federal bench, which is a greater percentage than any other President in history,” she declared at a June 9 event in Washington D.C. held by the National Women’s Partnership Luncheon.
But the high-dollar donors prefer personal stories, Fern said. They tend to know the political scene very well, and they like the emotional connection that brings them closer to the politician, said Fern, who lives in Austin, Texas. For example, Bush’s speeches to Christian audiences would often cite his private prayers, Fern said.
Ms. Obama’s speeches showcase the president’s emotional reactions and intellectual responses, both of which are valued by his donor base of university-educated professionals.
Roughly 250 attendees at the Claremont event paid anywhere from $1,000 to $25,000 to hear Ms. Obama say that “I see those quiet moments late at night, after the girls have gone to bed, and he’s reading letters from people — because he always reads people’s letters, always. The letter from the woman dying of cancer whose health insurance wouldn’t cover her care. The letter from the young person with so much promise, but so few opportunities. And I see the sadness and the worry creasing his face. I hear the passion and determination in his voice. Says, ‘You won’t believe what folks are going through.’ Says, ‘Michelle, this isn’t right. And we have to fix it. We have to do more.’”
The audience also wants to see Obama – and themselves – as the antithesis of Bush, who was widely deemed by Democrats and media professionals to be stupid and easily manipulated, said Fern. That desire helps to explain the extravagant depiction of Obama’s intelligence, empathy and professional accomplishments, Fern said.
“Starting the first thing in the morning and going late into the night, this is a man who is hunched over briefing books,” she said at a $1 million fundraiser in Westwood, near Beverly Hills, that was attended by about 350 professionals and Hollywood celebrities, including Ellen Degeneres, Portia DeRossi, Drew Barrymore, Vanessa Williams and Brian Grazer. “He reads every single word. He is gifted. He is able to retain, make notes, ask questions. He knows more than the people briefing him. This man is special because all those wins and losses, they’re not wins and losses for him. They’re wins and losses for the folks whose stories he carries with him, the folks he worries about and prays about before he goes to bed at night,” Ms. Obama said.
This flattering message could be undermined by joking about the President or the First Lady, said Fern. “They don’t want people to see them as jokers,” and the audience doesn’t want to see their leader and role model serve as the butt of jokes, Fern said.
The accuracy of Ms. Obama’s depiction of the President’s workload and judgment is questionable. For example, the President has played at least 70 games of golf since inauguration day in January 2009. His judgments about political developments in the Middle East have not been in sync with actual events, and his domestic economic policies have been accompanied by an unemployment rate of at least 9.1 percent, a trillion-dollar annual deficit, and declining poll-numbers.
Yet Ms. Obama’s statements may be sincere because they match statements attributed to the President, and the praise by the president’s supporters.
In 2007, for example, Obama reportedly told his future political director, Patrick Gaspard, that “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.” That description came from Gaspard, who was interviewed by New Yorker author Ryan Lizza for a November 2008 article.
In 2010, Peter Baker, a writer for the New York Times, reported that “one prominent Democratic lawmaker told me Obama’s problem is that he is not insecure — he always believes he is the smartest person in any room and never feels the sense of panic that makes a good politician run scared all the time.”
In an April 2009 article headlined “Obama’s Enchanting Quizfest,” Tom Shales, then the Washington Post’s TV critic, declared that “he’s not the student who wears a button that says, ‘Smartest kid in class,’ but clearly he is, at least when surrounded by the White House press corps.”
The first family’s race is also relevant, said Fern, because Ms. Obama likely feels under intense pressure to avoid any mistakes that would make her or her husband look bad and also embarrass their supporters. “He’s the first African-American president… [so she wants to show] he can handle this, he is that smart and that dedicated,” Fern said.
Ms. Obama, like many all other political advocates, repeats her messages many times, much to the irritation of reporters, said Fern. That’s partly because even loud and sharp messages delivered inside the Beltway may barely be noticed if they reach Texas or California, she said. Ms. Bush would give speeches on a single theme for three months straight, Fern said, because “you have to hammer a message home to the public.”
Whatever the merits or faults of her speeches, the public won’t object to Ms. Obama’s shameless promotion of the President, and won’t quibble with the accuracy of her personal anecdotes, said Fern. That’s because she’s his wife, not his Vice President or one of his cabinet secretaries, said Fern. “She’s the only one who can technically get away with it.”