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.
Still, even after Mrs. Obama's European vacation, some former Bushies are slow to criticize the first lady. "I defended her on her trip to Spain because the first wave of anger was about the cost of her friends' travel expenses, which wasn't the case," says former Bush White House press secretary Dana Perino. "But then I realized -- and I was surprised by how strong it was from the left -- that people were mad about the appearance of it. And I don't think that's about her trip in particular. I think people seized on the trip to channel their more general anger and frustration with the administration's policies and approach."
Perino is probably more understanding than the public as a whole. In the coming campaign, Mrs. Obama's expensive tastes invite the charge that the Obama White House, with its fondness for Wagyu beef, glitzy parties and celebrity hobnobbing, is out of touch with regular people. That can hurt at a time when 66 percent of those surveyed in the new poll believe President Obama has fallen short of their expectations for dealing with the economy.
Where do Mrs. Obama's ratings go from here? The White House is certainly hoping that she won't end up in the territory last occupied by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who began her time in the White House with a 57 percent positive rating but quickly fell into the 40s after the Travelgate scandal and into the 30s with the Whitewater investigation.
The administration is also hoping that Mrs. Obama doesn't get an extended version of the treatment handed to first lady Nancy Reagan. There's no comparable polling from that era, but during the economic downturn of the early 1980s, Mrs. Reagan's image was hurt by relentless criticism in the press. The New York Times lashed out at her for "exercising her opulent tastes in an economy that is inflicting hardship on so many."
Back then, the pundits didn't hit Mrs. Reagan for the mere "appearance" of extravagance. So far, Mrs. Obama has mostly escaped that kind of searing criticism. But one more lavish outing, and no one will be talking about her as the White House's best asset.