Why Michelle Obama will never run for president
In a presidential election marked by its rancour, divisiveness and, at times, downright depravity, Michelle Obama may be the only major political figure to emerge with more goodwill than she started with.
In what was only her second most powerful speech of the campaign (so far), she skewered Donald Trump's childishness and cruelty at the Democratic convention in July with her family's motto: "When they go low, we go high."
Then she topped that performance last week with a now-viral monologue that channelled so many people's moral outrage at his dehumanising treatment of women: "I feel it so personally … The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect."
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Obama was already an admired first lady, but her approval ratings are on the rise, and she is now also the most popular person in American political life.
An NBC/WSJ poll out on Tuesday showed 59 per cent of respondents hold a positive view of her, ahead of her husband (51 per cent), and the two candidates - Hillary Clinton (40 per cent) and Donald Trump (29 per cent).
Glenn Beck, the prominent right-wing commentator, reluctantly admitted her speech last week was "the most effective political speech since Ronald Reagan".
The eulogising of her time in the White House has already begun and the tone is practically beatific. And she commands so much goodwill that, for now at least, she is the only one of his critics at whom Trump does not dare lash out.
So naturally, there's rising speculation about her running for office herself. This chatter is often accompanied by suggestions that she would easily be a superior and more successful candidate than that other former first lady running for office, Hillary Clinton.
The internet is practically "begging" Obama to run for president, as several headlines have put it. And so it seems will Democrats, if they haven't started already.
On Tuesday, party figures in her home state of Illinois were quoted as saying they would try to recruit her for a tilt at the US Senate or the Chicago mayoralty in the future.
"We would encourage her and put pressure on her," said one.
But all this is probably wishful thinking.
Most importantly, Michelle Obama herself has been emphatic about her desire never to run for elected office.
While it's the oldest trick in the book to play coy right up until the moment you announce a campaign (as Hillary Clinton did in the '90s), Obama's insistence feels authentic.
She was famously wary of her husband running for office in the first place, and has been candid about her dislike of partisan politics and the demands of political life since.
As first lady, she's spoken of her horror at seeing her children being placed in bullet-proof vehicles, and her frustration at not being able to say what she thinks or do what she wants.
She's been involved in select issues (with a maternal flavour) while in the White House - campaigning for healthier food and girls' education - but hasn't got involved in policy in the way Clinton did in the '90s.
"There are three things that are certain in life … death, taxes, and Michelle is not running for president," Barack Obama said earlier this year.
Her own very clear feelings aside, would all the goodwill she enjoys now translate directly into votes anyway, as many assume?
Of course she's more than capable of holding office and would be in a stellar starting position.
But much of Obama's power in this election lies precisely in the fact that she's not a candidate or politician.
Though she's campaigning for a Democrat, she doesn't speak in party political terms, but rather addresses audiences as a concerned mother, wife and American, in very personal, often emotional terms, with her voice shaking and her hand on her heart.
Coming from a politician, especially a woman, would a speech like the one she delivered last week have been received so warmly?
By some, yes, but it's likely she would have been slammed by a chunk of the political commentariat as "playing the gender card", as Julia Gillard learnt, or being too soft.
Obama is in a position to do this though as someone above the political fray, the "mom-in-chief" of the nation.
As many outsider candidates have learnt the hard way, it's difficult to maintain your pure idealism and hero status when you delve into the messy world of electoral politics. Especially when it's about seeking a leadership role, and especially for women.
As Chloe Angyal, an Australian-American journalist put it after the Democratic convention: "I know folks think FLOTUS would be a lock if she ran; I'm not so sure.
So far, people don't love it when first ladies ask for 'real' power."
Angyal went on to point out Clinton's own approval ratings crashed in the short space of time between when she left the White House, as Bill's cheated-on-but-loyal wife, and ran for the Senate in New York a year later.
They went up again when she was appointed Secretary of State, but came down when she ran for the presidency.
While Obama wouldn't bring the same level of baggage that Clinton would - hers and Barack's time in the White House has not been surrounded in scandal in the same way - it seems naive to think that an ambitious, party-political streak in her wouldn't be met with some of the same displeasure, distrust and plain old sexism it has in Clinton's case.
Lucky for her supporters, though, she wants to continue to play a role in public life outside elected office - something "mission-based and service-focused".
The power she could wield here shouldn't be written off - unburdened by being first lady, she could become an even more powerful voice or actor on whatever she wanted, but critically perhaps on issues too thorny or partisan for her previous role, such as racism or gun violence.
The White House isn't the only place from which to lead in America, and hopefully Michelle Obama's voice will be even stronger out than in.
- The Age