When properly executed, a First Lady’s life unfolds with the precision of manned spaceflight — a job exquisitely planned and breathtaking to watch. Take little Sydney Trapp, a 6-year-old in cornrows who stands with her violin among crumb-crusted fruit pies in Occoquan, Va., in early June.
“Surprise!” says Michelle Obama as she enters the store, called Mom’s Apple Pie Co., surprising no one. The mayor has been standing there for a while, along with assorted Secret Service agents and Sydney and her mother, who were invited by the First Lady’s staff for their photo-op potential. Even before Obama stepped out from her motorcade, the store’s employees had been calling their friends to announce the news. “Are we allowed to take pictures?” one asked.
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Now, with the First Lady standing before her, Sydney creates the campaign equivalent of zero gravity. She asks permission to pull out her violin, then begins to play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” conjured with the furious determination of a kindergartner who has mastered a new skill. As she finishes, the group, led by Obama, bursts into applause. Sydney takes her bows and then, without invitation, does what all young girls in the First Lady’s presence seem to want to do. She wraps her arms around Obama’s waist and squeezes tight. “You are awesome,” the First Lady says.
With that, a campaign moment is made. The photographers file their images, while video of the scene bounces off satellites to news stations across the country. “Adorable Girl Plays Violin for Michelle Obama and Melts the Nation’s Heart,” reads one headline. The fashion blogs comment on the First Lady’s sleeveless top, pink skirt and structured handbag. It’s just another day on the campaign trail for Obama. She shows up, and the world takes notice.
On Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., another campaign moment will be made when the First Lady addresses the first night of the Democratic National Convention. There is little suspense about the substance of her remarks. For months now, she has been telling the story of her family’s blue collar roots, her husband’s family side and the concern she has for the future of the country and the causes she cares most about. But if all goes as planned, the world will once again take notice, and her husband will once again be the political beneficiary.
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Of course, it’s not the sort of notice that a President or candidate would receive. While her husband is scrutinized and barraged with questions and taunts, asked to account for his failures and project his vision, Obama glides through the campaign one step removed but no less fierce in her determination to win. “Are you in?” she likes to ask the friendly crowds of supporters who have shown up for the 62 fundraisers, lunches and receptions she has appeared at for the campaign through June. “Because I am so in. I am so fired up.”
In these settings, her job is not unlike her day job: to inspire, to speak about her husband in personal terms and to rally the troops, particularly women and blacks who see her as a one-of-a-kind role model for themselves and their children. (At an event at a hotel in Pennsylvania, the men’s room was overtaken by women, since so few men attended.) Obama talks about her blue collar upbringing and lists off a standard vision of an America that its sons and daughters would be proud to inherit. “I want to give them that sense of limitless possibility,” she says. “That belief that here in America, there is always something better out there if you are willing to work hard.”
But these events are mostly a sideshow. The national press is never going to lead its coverage with a campaign speech by the President’s wife, filled with mostly canned rhetoric. So the Chicago operation has crafted a different strategy to push the First Lady onto the nation, going around the national press, which — truth be told — no longer holds its old monopoly on informing the public. Her planners stage moments for Obama in pie shops, meant for viral appeal online, and send her out to do the rounds on television shows where few politicians dare to tread.
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Obama invites a camera crew from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to Washington to film a skit in the East Room and challenges Ellen DeGeneres to a push-up contest on daytime TV. (Of course, the First Lady, who works out 90 minutes a day, sometimes starting as early as 5:30 a.m., pumps out 25, vanquishing DeGeneres, who manages only 20.) She reads off David Letterman’s top 10 list while holding a plastic mold of her husband as a head of broccoli and parries questions about his teenage marijuana use with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. There are appearances on iCarly, The View, Good Morning America, the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, among others. That last show got ratings on a par with those for the networks’ nightly newscasts, but the numbers matter less than the demographics. There are some audiences that only Obama can reach, they say around headquarters, and she does it well.
On top of the light stuff, Obama has her policy work. When she arrived at the White House, the focus was on military families and veterans. And that has not gone away. But it has been eclipsed by her campaign to persuade the U.S. food industry to help the nation eat healthier. To some degree, the industry has played along, making voluntary commitments to cut calories and unhealthy ingredients and curtail advertising of sugary snacks to children in exchange for some of Obama’s publicity magic. Her first book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, became a best seller. In a CNN poll in April, 71% of respondents had a favorable view of the First Lady.
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The thread that connects all these efforts is the one that Obama has fought hardest to achieve. She is now clearly comfortable with this phase of her life as a mother of two blossoming daughters, the wife of the most powerful man in the world and a role model for millions, with a megaphone as big as any in Washington. She still readily returns all the hugs she is offered, whether by children or adults. It wasn’t the job she ever expected to have, having been raised to make a career of her own. And she has every intention of returning to her career after her family moves out of the White House, which she hopes will happen in 2017. But in the meantime, she has freedom and purpose and a nation’s attention.
She may have been wary of the role of First Lady at one time, but now it is clear that she wants to keep at it — and not for the perks, like a chauffeured ride to the pie store, where she bought apple and sour cherry without the crumb crust. As she told a crowd of supporters in nearby Dale City just an hour earlier, “I look forward to being out there with you all every step of the way. I can’t wait to keep it going.”
Portions of this article are excerpted from the new TIME book The Essential Voter’s Guide, which features profiles of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as well as interviews with their families and campaign insiders. Available wherever books are sold and at time.com/votersguide.