The XX Factor

Michelle Obama Makes Her Health Care Pitch a Womanly One

A week and some change after President Barack Obama’s widely praised speech to Congress on health care reform, Michelle Obama is making it a double feature. By overtly bringing the first lady into the contentious policy debate, the White House is upping the ante-but with a smart bet. The FLOTUS, as a former administrator at the University of Chicago hospitals, knows her way around the U.S. health care delivery system just as well her Democratic predecessor, Hillary Clinton. The strategy , as told to Politico’s Nia Hederson, is to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee:

She will do things that fit in with what she cares about, like health care reform and the implications it has for family and kids,” said Camille Johnston, Obama’s director of communications. “She will spend her time focusing on where policy and people intersect.”

That’s a smart play. After a hard-fought battle to reclaim her image as “Mom-in-Chief,” Michelle’s everywoman caché may well be her strongest asset in winning over the mildly engaged, gently Republican “soccer moms,” whose tacit support could speed the health care debate to its conclusion.

And so Michelle kicked off this autumn drive of advocacy (she’ll also showcase her negotiating skills at the G20 conference next week and the International Olympic Committee meeting in October) with an address to some 140 women of all ages at the Executive Office Building this morning. Her remarks, while focused on the intricacies of reform-“a marketplace with a variety of options that will let you compare prices and benefits”-still went heavy on the Lifetime theatrics:

Eight in 10 women, mothers, report that they’re the ones responsible for choosing their children’s doctor, for getting them to their checkups, for managing that follow-up care. Women are the ones to do it. Mothers are the ones that do it. And many women find themselves doing the same thing for their spouses. (Laughter.) And more than 10 percent of women in this country are currently caring for a sick or elderly relative. It’s often a parent, but it could a grandparent, or a mother – or a relative of some sort – but it’s often a parent. So they’re making critical health care decisions for those family members as well. In other words, being part of the sandwich generation, is what we are now finding, raising kids while caring for a sick or elderly parent, that’s not just a work/family balance issue anymore. It’s not just an economic issue anymore. More and more it is a health care issue. It’s something that I have thought a great deal about as a mother.

In the rest of her speech, Obama dropped “mother” seven times, “family” 15 times, and “women” 35 times.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Women are getting slammed with not just decisionmaking but disparities in the provision of health care in America. Obama even referenced the subject of my post earlier this week on female victims of domestic violence being denied coverage for the “preexisting condition” of having been beaten up . And she had plenty of other smart examples which, though targeted at women, offered a case for health insurance reform based more on economic and social equity than on touchy-feeliness (though, my goodness, there was a lot of that):

[A] recent study showed that 25-year-old women are charged up to 45 percent more for insurance than 25-year-old men for the exact same coverage. And as the age goes up, you get to 40, that disparity increases to 48 percent – 48 percent difference for women for the exact same coverage in this country. …

Just think about it. Many women are being charged more in health care coverage, but as we all know, women are earning less. We all know that women earn 78 cents on the dollar to every men – to a man. So it’s not exactly surprising when we hear statistics that more than half of women report putting off needed medical care simply because they can’t afford it. …

I think it’s clear that health insurance reform and what it means for our families is very much a women’s issue. It is very much a women’s issue.

And if we want to achieve true equality for women, if that is our goal; if we want to ensure that women have opportunities that they deserve, if that is our goal; if we want women to be able to care for their families and pursue things that they could never imagine, then we have to reform the system. We have to reform the system. The status quo is unacceptable. It is holding women and families back, and we know it.

This hybrid argumentation is really novel, and was quite effective for the crowd in attendance. According to the East Wing, the first lady plans to do much more of this gentle, reasoned nudging as the days creep closer to Oct. 15-the be-all, end-all deadline for passing a health care bill out of Congress.