- Associated Press - Sunday, February 12, 2012

DALLAS — In just the past few days, she’s danced with cheering schoolchildren, chatted with troops, swapped ideas with busy parents and engaged in a friendly cooking competition with stars from “Top Chef.”

Michelle Obama’s national tour was intended to promote the second anniversary of her campaign against childhood obesity. The images have been disarming, intriguing and nonpolitical, just the type of thing her husband’s re-election campaign can’t get enough of.

Five years to the day after then-Sen. Barack Obama announced he was running for president, Mrs. Obama’s travels this past week offered fresh evidence of what an outsized role she’s assumed in the public eye and how powerful a political asset a first lady can be.

Make no mistake, Mrs. Obama said she’s “incredibly enthusiastic” about making the case for her husband’s re-election.

Simply put, “I want him to be my president for another four years,” she said in a 40-minute interview Friday with a few reporters.

In recent weeks, Mrs. Obama has seemingly been everywhere: doing pushups with Ellen DeGeneres, serving veggie pizza to Jay Leno, playing tug-of-war with Jimmy Fallon in the White House. Then came the tour of Arkansas, Florida, Iowa and Texas to mark the two-year point for her “Let’s Move” initiative.

The first lady draws a line between her policy efforts on childhood obesity and her political activities. But such distinctions often are lost on the public.

“This is a bit of a two-fer,” Mrs. Obama said in her interview on Friday, “because it’s an issue that I care about, and it’s an issue that’s important to the country. … I want to make sure that what I do enhances him.”

The first lady added that she knew from the beginning of her husband’s presidency that she had to choose issues that were important to her personally because “if you’re just doing it for political reasons, or there’s some ulterior [motive], people smell that out so easily, and it’s hard to sustain.”

To a more limited extent, Mrs. Obama also fills a more overtly political role by headlining private fundraisers that raise millions for her husband’s campaign, reaching out to supporters through conference calls to various states and shooting out periodic emails to campaign backers around the country.

That part of her labors will increase considerably in the months to come.

But the first lady said she’s careful to protect her time as “Sasha and Malia’s mom.”

“My approach to campaigning is, ‘This is the time that I have to give to the campaign, and whatever you do with that time is up to you, but when it’s over, don’t even look at me. … No calls. No anything.”

For now, the first lady’s most visible role is tied to her signature issue of fighting obesity, allowing her to connect with voters on an emotional level and relate to them as a mother who has struggled with some of the same challenges that other families face.

“We’re constantly trying to make sure that what we do is on point with what is going on in people’s lives,” Mrs. Obama told parents this past week as she chatted with them over low-calorie plates of chicken and pasta at an Olive Garden restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas. “I mean, at one point, I was normal. I went to the grocery store, and I did all that.”

While the president’s favorability ratings and those of Vice President Joseph R. Biden slipped considerably over their first three years in office, Mrs. Obama’s have remained strong.

Mr. Obama’s favorability rating now stands at 51 percent; Mr. Biden’s at 38 percent. By contrast, 66 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the first lady, about even with her ratings on Inauguration Day, according to the Pew Research Center.

That’s about where Laura Bush stood in the fourth year of her husband’s first term, and it’s considerably higher than Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 42 percent at the start of her husband’s fourth year as president.

Mrs. Obama is particularly popular with women and younger Americans, polling shows. And she does well with the moderate and liberal Republicans and independents whom Democrats will try to lure away in the fall elections.

So far, Mrs. Obama has headlined 32 fundraisers over the past 10 months, including six this year. Tickets to her political events range from $100 to $10,000, making them more accessible than higher-dollar fundraisers for the president. And her political schedule includes smaller cities, such as Charlottesville, Va., and Cape Elizabeth, Maine, that aren’t likely to draw a presidential visit.