Politics

The Case for Michelle Obama

She’s the vice president America wants.

Michelle Obama in front of a 2020 Veepstakes badge.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Martin Sylvest/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images.

This is an installment of Veepstakes, Slate’s series on who Joe Biden should pick as his running mate.

Just to move it out of the way: Getting Michelle Obama to run for vice president is a pipe dream. The former first lady, bestselling author, and most admired woman in the United States has repeatedly said she does not want to run for higher office. Last year, Obama said there was “zero chance” she would run for president. Prior to that, she’d said of her political aspirations “no, nope, not going to do it,” “it’s just not for me,” and “it’s not something I’m interested in or would ever do. Ever.”

So, no, Michelle Obama is not going to be running for political office.

That said, it would clearly be best for the rest of the country if Michelle Obama did run for president or—now that Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee—vice president in 2020.

The case for a Michelle Obama national candidacy has always been incredibly simple. If you think that the most popular and qualified candidates with the widest appeal are the likeliest to win a national election, you should want her on the Democratic ticket. Most critically this year, if you genuinely believe that President Donald Trump is an existential danger to American democracy and the health, economic well-being, and lives of people in this country—as the past four years have proved and as so many progressives profess to believe—then you should want the ticket to include the candidate who is most likely to prevent him from winning another four years in office. Michelle Obama is that person.

One of the reasons Obama has given for declining to run for higher office is that the skill set she’s demonstrated to the public, during and after her husband’s eight years in the White House, shouldn’t automatically qualify her for the job. “Just because I gave a good speech, I’m smart and intelligent doesn’t mean I should be the next president,” Obama said two years ago, referring to her celebrated 2016 Democratic National Convention speech. “That’s not how we should pick the president.”

It’s true that she does give a good speech, and it’s also true that giving a good speech shouldn’t automatically qualify someone to be president. (Though it can occasionally launch strong candidates into the national spotlight.) The demurring implication that she isn’t otherwise qualified, though, is absurd.

Like Hillary and Bill Clinton—minus the ghastly public domestic psychodrama—Michelle and Barack Obama were intellectual and professional peers. Barack Obama just happened to prefer being the one in the foreground when it came to politics. Unlike Hillary Clinton, and almost certainly informed by Hillary’s health care experience, Michelle Obama kept her official policy duties as first lady circumscribed, focusing on high-profile and successful public health campaigns (and avoiding the right’s often racist efforts to demonize her). Before that, she had worked for years as an executive at a major American hospital, developing neighborhood outreach and volunteer recruitment programs to help underserved communities. This seems like useful experience for a leader to have during the worst public health crisis in 100 years, particularly during a pandemic that is having a disproportionate impact on the health of people in already marginalized black and brown communities.

Earlier in her life, Obama used her time at Harvard Law School to advocate for increased staff and student diversity while doing voluntary legal aid for people facing housing insecurity, then went into city government and eventually became the director of a Chicago nonprofit that worked to inspire young people to enter public service. This seems like useful experience for a leader to have at a time of a possible long-overdue reckoning over how systemic racism has created disparities in nearly every sector of American society.

After eight years in the White House alongside a very popular president, Michelle Obama wrote a memoir that had record-breaking sales and was a producer on an Oscar-winning documentary. More importantly, she founded a voter registration initiative that is already reaching hundreds of thousands of potential voters. This seems like useful experience to have when facing down a generational assault on voting rights.

While Michelle Obama is exceedingly well prepared to be president or vice president—especially right now—the biggest thing that her candidacy would have going for it is that she’d make any ticket likelier to win. There isn’t much polling on Michelle Obama as a politician, possibly because she has been so clear that she never wants to be one. What limited data does exist, however, is very clear. In a CBS poll in May, 64 percent of Democratic respondents said they would want Obama to be on Biden’s ticket if she were willing to do it. That number compared favorably to the leading actual candidates’.

In regard to those other contenders, smart analysts, like my colleague Christina Cauterucci, have argued that constantly focusing on the spouses of male political leaders for national leadership undersells women candidates with independent political ambitions and stifles new blood. That may—to a certain degree—be true. But we just held a Democratic primary in which the four leading candidates were respectively a 77-year-old white man, a 78-year-old white man, and a 71-year-old white woman followed closely by a 78-year-old white man. In that same election, those voters opted for the nearest possible candidate they had to a restoration to the Obama presidency. Given those outcomes, maybe it’s worth overlooking as a strike against her that this powerful, popular, brilliant 56-year-old Black woman happens to have been married to a previous president, and accepting it as an asset.

Again, the polling suggests that her standing would be a great asset to any ticket. While public figures are always more popular when they’re not running for office—ask Hillary Clinton—people have reacted better to a hypothetical Michelle Obama candidacy than to most others. For example, an Axios and SurveyMonkey poll from last October had Michelle Obama beating Donald Trump 55–42 among registered voters in a hypothetical presidential contest. This 13-point lead surpassed Biden’s 9-point head-to-head margin and the 2-point margin of Sen. Elizabeth Warren—one of the current top contenders for the VP slot—in that same survey. Obama’s personal favorability in that poll was plus-31. That compares with negative-6 for Warren and negative-2 for Biden in recent polls.

It’s true that Biden currently leads Trump by an average of about 9 points. But there are four months to go until the election, more than enough time for Trump’s vincibility or the former vice president’s inherent vulnerabilities to start to manifest in the race in a way that could lead to defeat. Having the most popular possible candidate—Michelle Obama—on the ticket is one way to actually ensure the best possible odds of not losing to Donald Trump. As one Michigan state representative put it, “If he puts Michelle on the ticket, everybody turns out.”

Americans are, of course, not entitled to Michelle Obama’s candidacy, and she has already given more than anybody could be reasonably expected to as part of her historic and incredible public service. Still, the fact that she doesn’t want the job makes her even more qualified for it. It’s a cliché that anyone who wants to be president badly enough to do what is necessary to win can’t be trusted with the job. After four years of a president who most wanted the spoils of the presidency and was least trustworthy to have it, putting the opposite type of person in office is just what this country needs.

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