(WASHINGTON) — Signaling a new approach to a second term, first lady Michelle Obama is adding her voice to the political debate over her husband’s top legislative priorities.
On Tuesday, for the first time on a national stage, she spoke out on behalf of the Obama administration’s proposed immigration overhaul, which faces fierce opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
“I know these debates are hard, particularly on immigration,” she told a non-partisan conference of Hispanic advocates gathered in New Orleans. “But do not give up because I promise you that my husband won’t give up until a good bill gets on his desk.”
Her brief remarks on immigration, coming at the top of a speech to the National Council of La Raza that focused largely on childhood obesity, seemed to be an effort to inject a human element into a debate that has at times created a swirl of impersonal rhetoric.
“In the end these issues are about one simple thing: They’re about achieving the American Dream,” Obama reminded the crowd. “They’re about building a country where no matter who you are or where you’re from or what you look like or who you love, you can build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids.”
The high-profile appearance at La Raza underscores an emerging role for Michelle Obama as something of a humanizer-in-chief early in her second term as first lady. So far this year, she has stepped into debates over gun violence, education and the implementation of Obamacare, at each turn accentuating the human stories.
“We just bring a different perspective. We are mothers. We are nurturers,” she told a forum of African first ladies earlier this month in Tanzania.
Michelle Obama, like many of her predecessors, steered clear of overt politicking during her husband’s first term, focusing on apolitical initiatives like veterans’ affairs and childhood nutrition and physical fitness. But with no reelection campaign on the horizon and a desire to help solidify her husband’s legacy, she is quietly changing her approach.
On Tuesday, Obama even exerted her motherly influence, urging Hispanic community leaders to join the campaign to implement her husband’s controversial health care law.
“Simply passing the Affordable Care Act was not the goal. The goal is getting folks to sign up for the insurance so they stay healthy,” she said. “The minute you get back home from this conference, we need you to get out there and educate everyone you know about what health reform means for them.”
The call to action runs counter to Republican efforts in Congress and in states nationwide to derail implementation of the law and ultimately repeal it.
Ahead of a key Senate vote in April on expanded background checks for gun sales, the first lady stepped into the gun control debate with an emotional appeal in Chicago. She spoke poignantly of Hadiya Pendleton, a teenager shot and killed in Obamas’ neighborhood on the city’s South Side.
“If there is even one thing we can do, even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent from the grief that’s visited families like Hadiya’s and so many others here today, then don’t we have an obligation to try?” she asked.
“These reforms deserve a vote in Congress,” she said.
It’s unclear how far Obama will go in her advocacy on more contentious issues like gun control and immigration, but her aides have cast all of her appearances as part of a broad commitment to empowerment through education.
“Education is probably the most powerful weapon for change….So there’s a large part of my initiative that’s really trying to get into the heads of these young people and use my story as an example,” Obama said in Tanzania.
The role is one the first lady has grown into since moving into the White House in 2009 — a role she recently described as a “freeing and liberating opportunity” to work on issues of personal passion.
“Four to eight years is really a blink of an eye,” Obama told the forum of African first ladies. “And you often find that you’re just starting to get your teeth into your issues, and then it’s time to go…. But none of the work that we do and any of us does will be concluded at the end of a term.”
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