Much was made recently of The Hug between First Lady Michelle Obama and the Queen of England. Far more noteworthy, however, was another hug. Or hugs, actually. It came on the same trip during Mrs. Obama's visit to a girls school in North London. Most news attention was on the girls' presentation and the First Lady's emotional speech. But it was the reaction following the event that was far more profound.
When the visit was over, and Mrs. Obama had left, news cameras that stayed around captured the girls' explosive reaction in the schoolyard. There these young British girls were, jumping up and down, still screaming with delight among themselves, tears of exuberant joys in their eyes. One girl's face was as wide open as the sun, shouting out, "Michelle Obama HUGGED me!!!"
During the election, a friend and I were marveling how the mere photograph of a president of the United States who was black, with the name Barack Hussein Obama, would do more to instantly improve the nation's image around the world than pretty much anything conceivable. But what I didn't conceive was the reaction to Michelle Obama.
The economic conference in London was, of course, major news in the city. Meetings to resolve worldwide recession; street battles from protesters; the new, popular American president making his first state visit. Amid this, the conservative Daily Telegraph had a banner headline, "The Fightback Starts Here," detailing the conference's vital news. But directly below that headline, taking up almost the entirety of the "above the fold" page, was a color photograph that had nothing to do with the headline, nothing to do with protests, nothing to do even with any world leader -- not the Queen, Prime Minister nor U.S. president.
What the conservative British newspaper emblazoned across its front page was a massive photograph of Michelle Obama.
It's an utterly remarkable phenomenon. Not for what it is, but for what was.
Michelle Obama has been First Lady for only two months. A mere eight months ago, Republicans tried to vilify her -- not just as someone to dislike, but as a person who supposedly hated America. An edited tape made its way around right-wing talk radio to sound as if she had never before been proud of America. Fox News actually tried to suggest that she and her husband had made a "terrorist first bump." The goal was to frighten Americans of Michelle Obama. It was unprecedented -- wives are off-limits in campaigns, let alone, untouched, with the understanding that spouses aren't running for anything. Yet here were Republicans daily smearing the wife of Barack Obama. And it had its effect. A Gallup Poll last June had Michelle Obama's approval rating at only 43%.
And now, just eight months later, her popularity in polls is even higher than even her husband's, the president of the United States -- and his are really high. Barack Obama's approval is a soaring 69%-28%. Michelle Obama's rating, however, is ethereal -- 72% approval-17% disapproval.
And here are young girls in a foreign country beside themselves in panegyrics of ecstasy at being hugged by Michelle Obama.
And here is the Queen of England reaching out and touching her, in a rare moment, according to Buckingham Palace itself, of affection.
First Ladies are often more popular than their husbands, but that usually comes deep into the president's term, when the public has had a chance to be critical of policies. Coming into office, however, new presidents are at their most popular. Yet just two months after arriving at the White House, Michelle Obama has already risen above her wildly-popular husband.
Again, what's remarkable about Michelle Obama's popularity is not how popular she is (72%-17%), but how popular she is only eight months after being demonized by the Republican Party. Barely half a year later, she's almost double the then-43% approval. And this didn't occur through any significant event that changed peoples' opinion of her. It's that after eight months... people got to see her with their own eyes, unfiltered by right-wing talk radio and Fox News. The American public didn't know her before, they only had reports on how they were supposed to feel about her. But seeing her in action, seeing her grace, charm, intelligence, kindness and warmth -- seeing how incredibly well-raised her children were -- seeing someone who tells children in school, as she did those girls in London, "I liked getting A's... I thought there was nothing cooler than being smart" -- Americans saw for themselves, got to know her themselves, and made up their own minds. And in doing so, utterly repudiated the shameless, unprecedented, cruel Republican smears of a mere eight months earlier.
Just two months in office. From 43% to 72%. It's remarkable. But then, so is she.