The Obama administration’s all-out push for the Senate to move forward on gun control this week included a rare foray into the legislative arena by first lady Michelle Obama, who urged senators in an emotional plea not to filibuster the proposals.
Mrs. Obama, who as first lady has largely has stuck to traditional issues such as childhood nutrition and the needs of veterans, gave a tearful speech in Chicago on Wednesday in which she compared herself to 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, a hometown girl who was fatally shot in February by a gang member. She said the girl’s death affected her especially because they both grew up in the same neighborhood, and their families were very similar.
“What I realized was Hadiya’s family was just like my family,” Mrs. Obama said, her voice cracking with emotion as she spoke of attending the girl’s funeral. “Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her. But I got to grow up, and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School, and have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine. And Hadiya? Oh, we know that story. Just a week after she performed at my husband’s inauguration, she went to a park with some friends and got shot in the back because some kid thought she was in a gang. Hadiya’s family did everything right, but she still didn’t have a chance.”
The first lady then called on the Senate to vote on the merits of gun control legislation.
“My husband is fighting as hard as he can, and engaging as many people as he can, to pass common-sense reforms to protect our children from gun violence,” she said. “And these reforms deserve a vote in Congress.”
Not since Hillary Rodham Clinton headed a health care task force in 1993 has a first lady injected herself so directly into a legislative debate in Congress.
“This is definitely striking out in a more political direction,” said Myra Gutin, a professor of communications at Rider University who studies the role of first ladies. “To actually go out and give a speech as Mrs. Obama did, no, that doesn’t happen a lot.”
White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri said the administration’s deployment of Mrs. Obama on gun control just before the crucial Senate vote Thursday was no accident. The first lady’s speech followed a gun control speech by Mr. Obama in Connecticut near the scene of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, and preceded a Thursday morning appearance by Vice President Joseph R. Biden on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“We knew it was a really important week, so we wanted to have the president out starting in Connecticut, we knew that the first lady was going to be in Chicago speaking about how her and Hadiya Pendleton’s life mirrored each other so much, and then the vice president,” Ms. Palmieri said on MSNBC. “So we wanted to have all three of the principals really engaged this week.”
She said the first lady and Mr. Obama are motivated on gun control by “the obligations that we have to our children.”
“She was also very clear with us … that she wanted to make sure that there was more that she wanted to do to help particularly in Chicago,” Ms. Palmieri said. “I think they feel really powerfully as parents, as I think most parents do, about this issue, and also because Chicago has had such problems.”
In spite of its tough gun laws, Chicago had 513 homicides in 2012, a four-year high. The city’s 42 homicides in January were the most in a decade for that month.
The first lady’s office wouldn’t say Thursday whether Mrs. Obama’s speech on gun violence heralds a more active role for her on other legislative issues.
Although Mrs. Obama did a lot of fundraising on her husband’s behalf in 2012, and although she doesn’t shy from the camera (considering her live announcement on Oscar night for best picture), she has largely stayed out of the political spotlight, in keeping with the traditional role of first ladies.
Ms. Gutin noted that first lady Laura Bush did speak out about the plight of Afghan women and about the repressive regime in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. But for the most part, first ladies promote issues such as literacy, and they tend to be more popular than their husbands. In fact, Mrs. Obama has consistently been rated in polls as more popular than the president.
“She’s not dealing with the war, she’s not dealing with immigration or the economy,” Ms. Gutin said. “Her portfolio is different things. So it’s easier to be popular.”
The speech inevitably leads to more speculation, too, about whether Mrs. Obama intends to pursue her own political career after leaving the White House in early 2017. Mrs. Obama stoked such talk in October while speaking to journalists on the campaign trail about what she viewed as conservatives’ attacks against reproductive rights.
“It is the rare instance where we take a deep dive backwards, where rights and freedoms are allowed to be taken away,” she said. “I just don’t believe women will not fight tooth and nail to make sure that we continue to progress. I’m not going let it happen, whether I’m [in the White House] or not.”
A poll by a Democratic firm in December in Illinois showed voters favoring Mrs. Obama if she wanted to challenge incumbent. The survey had Mrs. Obama leading Mr. Kirk, 51 percent to 40 percent, in a hypothetical 2016 match-up. Six out of 10 voters rated her positively, with one-third having a negative opinion.