Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Potent Obama Election Tool Comes Equipped with a Hug

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Potent Obama Election Tool Comes Equipped with a Hug

Article excerpt

Michelle Obama's hug, half motherly embrace and half papal benediction, has become a minor phenomenon..

This is how Michelle Obama delivers a hug: the tall first lady envelops her target, her long arms often wrapping all the way around and up 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 Olympic Games, the entire U.S. men's basketball team lined up for hugs, the sweaty giants waiting their turns like meek children. When Mrs. Obama gave the queen of England a mere half-hug, Britain went wild, and she delivers solemn, private hugs to injured soldiers. 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, 'O.K., 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 Michelle Obama approaches the roles of first lady and campaign surrogate. The Harvard-trained lawyer, trying to win votes and high approval ratings, offers intimacy without revelation. Her signature gesture is striking but safe, politically risk-free.

That approach will probably be on display Tuesday night when Mrs. Obama will appear at the Democratic National Convention to deliver a speech that advisers describe as an exercise in empathy and connection. Behind the scenes, Mrs. Obama's advocacy for her husband can be so forceful that speechwriters have had to tone it down for public presentation, aides say. But forget the scathing critiques of Republicans that Mrs. Obama delivers in private. Her advisers believe that she is most politically potent when she does not appear overtly political, that she comes across best as a gracious noncombatant in the red-and-blue wars. So in the address on Tuesday night, they say, she will try to present herself as a caring, wifely figure and appear above the partisan fray.

Just as she has been doing on the campaign trail, she is expected to describe her husband as a grounded, devoted man driven to build better lives for American children, implying that he knows far more about economic challenges than a wealthy son of fortune like Mitt Romney ever could.

"Your president is the son of a single mother who struggled to put herself through school and pay the bills," she has said at events all summer. …

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