WASHINGTON -- After three years as America's Mom-In-Chief, First Lady Michelle Obama is ready for a fight.
The 2012 presidential election is "another battle, and I am looking forward to doing it," Obama told a packed house of Democratic donors in Chicago on Tuesday. "I’m going to be walking around, running around this country for the next 12 months making sure people understand what’s at stake."
Over the coming year, Obama is poised to set a new precedent for American first ladies, doing more than any first lady before her to help ensure that the president is reelected. Armed with a sharper message in recent weeks, Obama bears little resemblance to the reluctant campaigner of early 2008, who was fond of telling donors that initially, she "wasn't exactly thrilled by the idea" of her husband running for president.
Since mid-May, the first lady has headlined 23 fundraisers for the Democratic party, 9 of them in the past month alone. That's nearly as many as President Barack Obama himself has done -- his tally stands at 13 since Sept. 30. The first lady's predecessor, Laura Bush, headlined 13 fundraisers for her husband's reelection in all of 2003 combined.
The recent surge in the first lady's fundraising comes at a critical juncture in the overall campaign. The president's attempts to mobilize his Democratic base have been hampered by poor job approval ratings and a do-nothing Congress. Against this dreary political landscape, the first lady is viewed as a ray of sunlight, with favorability ratings that far outshine the president's and those of any would-be Republican challengers.
The Obama campaign declined to publicly discuss the first lady's role in the reelection effort, but officials have characterized it as an evolving one. According to Anita McBride, the former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush, "this kind of an aggressive schedule for a first lady indicates that the campaign recognizes how much they really need her and her popularity."
Big Dollars From Big Donors
The first lady's fundraisers benefit the Democratic National Committee, which operates the Obama Victory Fund, an arm of the president's campaign fundraising apparatus. Most of the events are held in Democratic strongholds, including New York City, Rhode Island, Aspen, Colo., Chicago and Los Angeles. Tickets range from $500 to the maximum allowable $38,500, and reports indicate that Mrs. Obama's events have brought millions of dollars to Democratic coffers.
On Thursday, Obama headlined three separate fundraisers in the crucial battleground state of Florida, traversing the entire peninsula in one day for campaign events in Jacksonville, Tampa, and Ft. Lauderdale. The campaign did not release details of how much she raised, but crowd estimates and ticket prices add up to at least $500,000.
In between the Florida fundraisers, Obama was greeted at two airports by children whose schools had won healthy food-related awards. The student events dovetail with the first lady's signature "Let's Move!" initiative to combat childhood obesity, but their scheduling suggests that they were not the main purpose of the trip.
So who picks the tab for a campaign trip with official duties interspersed? The answer is both the White House and the Obama Victory Fund, which have divided costs for similar trips the first lady has done in the past. Complicated formulas govern the exact breakdown, but in general, the DNC pays for the portion of a trip that is deemed political, while the White House, meaning taxpayers, covers the part of the trip that falls under the heading of "official duties." Press coverage at campaign events is generally kept to a minimum, but in the case of the Florida trip, at least one print reporter covered each event.
A Sharper Message
Obama delivered a speech Thursday that she has been fine-tuning over the past month, having first introduced it in late September. This revamped speech is a rousing call to arms lasting approximately 25 minutes, and the language is noticeably more confrontational than previous campaign speeches the first lady has given.
In many ways, Obama's new speech eschews the conventional wisdom of speeches given by first ladies, which dictates that they should be family-oriented, light on policy, and more personal than political in tone. Traditionally, as McBride put it, a White House spouse's role on the stump was to "paint a human picture of the president, to solidify the party's base, and to spread goodwill."
But while Obama may accomplish this, she also draws battle lines and takes thinly veiled swipes at congressional Republicans.
"Last year, we made history together by finally passing health reform," Obama told donors Thursday. "But now there are folks out there talking about repealing that reform. And today, we have to ask ourselves, are we going to let them succeed?"
Sensing their cue, audiences yelled "No!"
"Will we let insurance companies deny us coverage because we have preexisting conditions like breast cancer or diabetes?" Obama asked.
"No!" they shouted.
These types of call-and-response lines are some of the newest and most effective elements of the first lady's campaign message, and she uses them to draw sharp contrasts between the Obama administration and the GOP. Once those contrasts are clear, she uses another new twist, vivid battle imagery, to drive home a sense of urgency and struggle.
"I am not going to kid you -- this journey is going to be long and it is going to be hard," she said in Florida, echoing a familiar theme in her husband's speeches. "In the end," Obama said, "we’re not fighting these battles for ourselves, we’re fighting them battles for our sons and our daughters, and our grandsons and our granddaughters. Just like the people who fought for us, we are fighting for the world we want to leave for them. That's what this is about."
As this new, tougher speech takes shape, older talking points have been eliminated to make room for new ones. The most noticeable of these are Obama's two major issues that she has focused on as first lady: childhood obesity and military families, neither of which she mentioned at all in Florida. Obama has also stopped telling voters about how the president "reassures" her "when we’re worried that that bill won’t pass, or the negotiations might fall through," by reminding her that "we’re playing a long game here," and "it’s not about today." It stands to reason that this kind of comforting image has no place in a campaign readying itself for a knock-down, drag out contest.
On Tuesday, the first lady will take her new and improved speech to two more cities, New Orleans and Houston.
"She has shown a great willingness and aptitude on the campaign trail," said McBride. "And at times like these, you make a decision to clear the decks and just do what needs to be done."
WATCH: The First Lady introduces President Obama at a Virginia event on October 19, 2011.
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