By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - She does not consider herself a "secret weapon," but Michelle Obama's trip to Africa showed the first lady has sharp political skills that White House aides can exploit to help re-elect her husband.
On her second official solo trip abroad, Mrs. Obama played the roles of traditional and non-traditional politician, meeting with the president of Botswana, calling on the first lady of South Africa, and sharing a moment with Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid icon.
She delivered a well-received speech to encourage young leaders, painted a wall with teenagers infected with HIV/AIDS, and gave, along with her daughters, a lively oral reading of Dr. Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat" to a group of children.
Audiences were smitten, highlighting her unique ability to connect with people on behalf of and independently from President Barack Obama.
Those skills will now be applied to domestic politics as the 2012 presidential election heats up.
The first lady arrived back in Washington late on Sunday and has a series of fund-raisers for Democrats this week. More campaign-related activities will crop up in her schedule over the coming months.
Despite her popularity at home and abroad, Mrs. Obama downplays her role in the president's political universe.
"I think my husband is his secret weapon. I mean, people will vote on who they think will make a good president. And they're going to look at his accomplishments," she said during an interview in Botswana with reporters traveling with her through Africa.
"They're going to look at the future -- or what kind of future we envision as a country. I think that's what happened in the last election. My motto is: Do no harm."
She does not appear to be doing any harm.
In events throughout her trip audiences lapped up her "mom-in-chief" style of international diplomacy.
One of her most effective tools: the hug.
At event after event, the first lady wrapped the young people she met in her arms, triggering tears from some who seemed, more than awed by the presence of a famous figure, overwhelmed by the intimacy of her outreach.
Obama is not shy about discussing her initial disdain for politics. She draws laughter regularly when she says she tried to discourage her husband from running for the White House.
But she is a canny politician in her own right. Like the president, she stays on message. She can be wordy but she is deft at dodging a question or steering a conversation toward a theme she finds more comfortable.
Those skills -- and her clear ability to connect with people -- make her valuable, and she knows that.
But the first lady restricts her schedule to be available to her girls, Malia and Sasha, and White House staff adjust her public appearances accordingly.
"People don't even ask me to do certain things. The first question is, what are the girls doing? And what time of the year is this?" she said. "So it'll be the same thing (for this campaign). But when I get out there, my whole thing is that when I'm out, let's make good use of my time."
Analysts say first ladies do not swing elections. But they can, as Michelle Obama and her predecessors have demonstrated, bring in dollars and affect the images of their respective spouses.
"First ladies very often top the list of 'most admired women' in polls -- but it doesn't seem to affect the feelings for their husbands," said John Mark Hansen, dean of the social sciences division at the University of Chicago.
If the feelings shown in Africa are a guide, however, this first lady's impact will be a net positive in the 2012 campaign and on the continent she just left.
"There's no better goodwill ambassador, I think, especially to Africa and to South Africa in particular," said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"Obviously she'll be a powerful force in the campaign cycle as well. She's got a very human, humble touch."
(Editing by Todd Eastham)