Byron York

After a widely admired start in the White House, first lady Michelle Obama's popularity is falling and, if the current downward trend in her approval ratings continues, could touch lows not seen since the scandal-tainted days of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 50 percent of those surveyed say they have a positive opinion of Mrs. Obama. That's down from 64 percent in April 2009 and 55 percent in January of this year. The first lady's positive rating is barely ahead of her husband's personal-approval figure, which stands at 46 percent in the new poll.

The survey was taken from Aug. 5 to Aug. 9, which happened to coincide with Mrs. Obama's vacation in Spain, where she, along with daughter Sasha and several friends, stayed in a posh five-star resort. It was a luxurious getaway for the first lady of a nation with nearly 10 percent unemployment and widespread economic anxiety, and it fed an image of extravagance that Mrs. Obama has created by, among other things, patronizing chichi restaurants and wearing $775 boots to break ground at her White House garden. A new name -- "Michelle Antoinette" -- was born.

The first lady's falling numbers stand in contrast to the still-strong belief among some Washington political insiders that she will be a big asset for Democrats on the campaign trail this fall. After the Spain trip brought the first extended bad press of her time as first lady, the White House, and some of its allies in the press, pushed back by claiming Mrs. Obama will still be much in demand. News accounts suggested her "sky-high popularity," her role as "cultural and fashion icon" and her "incredible force" will boost Democrats across the country. Now, with the Wall Street Journal/NBC numbers, that's not so clear.

Mrs. Obama's ratings are decidedly different from predecessor Laura Bush. In December 2001, as George W. Bush's popularity soared after the 9/11 attacks, Mrs. Bush's positive rating stood at 76 percent in the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Nearly four years later, in 2005, it was 65 percent. Still later, when President Bush's job-approval rating hit bottom, Mrs. Bush fell briefly to 54 percent -- still above where the current first lady is today.


Byron York

Byron York, chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner