Democracy & Government

Two Firsts, One Candidate, One Superstar

In their first campaign appearance together, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, once adversaries, praised each other's commitment to public service.

Two Firsts, One Candidate, One Superstar

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama greet supporters during a campaign event at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Oct. 27, 2016. The first lady joined Clinton for the first time to campaign for the presidential election. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Halfway through Hillary Clinton’s get-out-the-vote rally at Wake Forest University in North Carolina yesterday afternoon, I realized that Pogo, the cartoon possum, was right: I was seeing the future, and it was us.

To roars of approval from some 11,000 mostly young people in the stadium, the two most powerful women in American politics were holding a mutual feminist admiration society.

Never before had a sitting first lady campaigned together with a former first lady.

“There are so many things I admire about our first lady,” Hillary Clinton said. “Seriously, is there anyone more inspiring than Michelle Obama?”

Visibly moved, the current first lady redirected the cheers, aiming an elegant finger at the woman at the podium. “She is absolutely ready to be commander in chief on day one, and yes, she happens to be a woman!” Obama told the crowd.

And so another barricade fell during an already unprecedented year. Never before had a sitting first lady campaigned together with a former first lady. Never before had two such prominent moms tied the election of a candidate to the care and education and future of American children — children like the ones they themselves raised, in the White House. And never before in a stump speech had one Ivy League law graduate said of another, “Hillary is a policy wonk, and let me tell you, when you are president, that is a good thing!”

The irony was delicious.

Despite — and yes, perhaps thanks to the male chauvinist bombast, braggadocio and sometimes outright piggery that has dominated this campaign — it’s the girls who are ruling. And despite centuries of legal and cultural mandates to keep women in their place — whether the kitchen or the East Wing of the White House — not only is America’s next president likely to be female, but so is the unexpected new breakout star of this year’s campaign.

For those who observed the early frosty relationship between President Barack Obama’s wife and his former rival in the sometimes bitter campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2008, their new solidarity reflects not only a joint passion to defeat the Republican candidate and prolong the current presidency, but an evolution on the part of Michelle Obama over eight sometimes difficult years.

Once, Obama was seen as aloof, the accomplished-but-unapproachable Ivy League lawyer who stayed back home in Chicago while her husband commuted to the US Senate. The first few times I interviewed her at the White House, I found a cool and guarded woman who seemed wary of the public spotlight.

During the 2008 campaign to get there, she had, at times, been seen as a liability, widely castigated for saying — about the enthusiasm for our first African-American presidential candidate — “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.”

Michelle Obama enjoys the highest popularity rating of any major national public figure.

But now, in North Carolina, Obama was wrapping herself in the flag, slamming Donald Trump (and slyly obliterating him by never mentioning his name) for a vision “grounded in hopelessness and despair… of a country that is weak and divided,” compared to Clinton’s: “a nation that is powerful and vibrant… where we are always stronger together.” Recently, in New Hampshire, she was the one who redefined moral clarity with her deeply personal demolition of Trump’s demeaning attitude toward women.

To say that Obama has only now got her groove would belittle her extraordinary accomplishments in everything from childhood nutrition to comic karaoke, but she’s clearly skyrocketed to brave new heights. She enjoys the highest popularity rating of any major national public figure – 64 percent in an August Gallup poll. And I suspect I am not the only interviewer whom she now greets with a hug.

In the process, she’s become Hillary Clinton’s most formidable advocate. They make an unlikely couple, these two: Obama, 52, is nearly a head taller than Clinton, 69, whom she called, affectionately, “my girl!” And while Clinton sometimes struggles in public to convey her warmth, Obama connects across the generations with her cool grasp of the lingo and her ease of conversational speech, as she did when she reminded the crowd yesterday of the unusual public role the two have shared.

“First ladies – we rock!” Obama said yesterday, with a grin.

And in case any doubt remained, she declared, “Hillary Clinton is my friend.”

Their sisterhood is so powerful, it is wiping out the stereotypes, recasting clichés for future generations. At one point in her speech, Clinton praised Obama’s now-legendary White House vegetable garden. “I can promise you,” the would-be leader of the free world said, “if I win, I will take good care of it.”

“When you win!” the crowd replied.

With luck, the seed gods were listening.

Lynn Sherr

Lynn Sherr is an award-winning journalist and has been covering politics and women’s issues for more than 40 years, mostly at ABC News, where she was a correspondent for World News Tonight and 20/20. Her best-selling books include Swim: Why We Love the Water; Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space and Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words. Sherr currently freelances on a variety of platforms. Follow her on Twitter: @LynnSherr.