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As campaign heats up, Michelle Obama settles into first lady role

By Dan Lothian, CNN White House Correspondent
updated 5:42 PM EST, Mon February 13, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michelle Obama is viewed as an asset to her husband's re-election campaign
  • She's advocate for military families and promoter of healthy lifestyle, especially for kids
  • Still, negative images in the media have dogged the first lady
  • She responds to those who have called her an "angry black woman"

Washington (CNN) -- First lady Michelle Obama is a popular American political figure, even more so than her husband. Her name, face and stories of her influence behind the scenes are a constant in the media, and sometimes in not so flattering words and images.

In books, she is portrayed as battling with White House insiders. In magazines, she has been satirized as a militant activist. On TV, she responds to those who see her as an "angry black woman."

But still, she stays centered, focusing on her issues -- health and young children, military families and raising her family inside the White House bubble.

"The administration is doing everything they can to keep her out in the public eye and remind everyone why they liked this family in the first place," said Garrett Graff, editor of The Washingtonian magazine.

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But that warm embrace isn't universal, and the first lady made note of it in a recent interview with CBS.

"There will always be people who don't like me," Obama told Gayle King on "CBS This Morning."

Ever since her husband announced his candidacy for the 2008 presidential race, she said some have viewed her as "some kind of angry black woman."

First ladies are always placed under the microscope and often become the targets of harsh critics. Paul Begala, a former adviser in the Clinton administration, said the public is an equal opportunity offender.

"Some liberals attacked Nancy Reagan unfairly. A whole lot of conservatives attacked Hillary Clinton when I was working for her husband in the White House," said Begala, who is also a CNN contributor.

For Michelle Obama the first punch came shortly after then-Sen. Barack Obama decided to run for president. Beaming with pride, she told an audience that "for the first time in my adult lifetime I'm really proud of my country."

That comment drew fire from conservatives who questioned her patriotism. She was forced to clarify her remarks.

Then there was the portrayal of her on the cover of The New Yorker. A sketch showed her with a machine gun slung across her back, sporting an Afro and wearing combat boots like 1960s activist Angela Davis.

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The first lady has carved out a public role for herself as a strong advocate for military families and promoter of a healthy lifestyle, especially for children.

At events or in TV appearances, she is only too willing to tout her fitness by joining in jumping jacks or getting down on the ground for push-ups. On "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," she playfully pressured the late-night entertainer to eat his veggies. She challenged talk-show host Jimmy Fallon to a tug-of-war contest in the White House.

Beyond promoting her initiatives, the first lady also has used the spotlight to pull the curtain back on her softer side.

Whether it's talking about her role as a mom or trying her hand at acting, such as a recent cameo appearance on the hit Nickelodeon comedy "iCarly," Obama tries to bring humor and personality inside the Washington bubble.

The Washingtonian's Graff said the first lady plays a unique role in American society. "We don't expect them to have the gravitas of the president, and so you can have a little more fun, be in photo opportunities and do things the president can't do because of his office," he said.

As the president campaigns for a second term, the first lady is also able to do something else.

Her trips often take her to key battleground states, where her message re-enforces the president's policies and her presence at fundraisers raises campaign cash.

"I know that if we come together and we do this work, we will elect the president that this country deserves," she recently told Obama supporters.

At another event, she pumped up the audience with a call and answer riff: "Do you have his back? Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?"

Said Begala, who considers himself an Obama supporter: "I think the first lady is not only the president's greatest asset in his political campaign; she's his greatest asset in his life. Political hacks like me would like to use her all the time."

But Begala warned she shouldn't be overused or become "too political" because that could "diminish her value."

In her supporting role, she is trying to strike a balance as wife, mother and first lady while challenging a lingering negative image that she insists is off the mark.

"I just hope that over time, that people get to know me," she told CBS.

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