WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA – As first ladies they could hardly have been more different. But as Democrats looking to fire up female voters, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton were firmly bonded on Thursday.
In their first joint appearance on the campaign trail, Mrs. Obama and Clinton talked up their shared respect, common values and singular goal: Defeating Republican Donald Trump. They papered over a somewhat rocky history and their vastly different paths through public life.
With Mrs. Obama aiming to secure her husband’s legacy and Clinton needing to propel women to the polls, the two sought to celebrate their political marriage of mutual interest, and reassure voters it’s real.
“Seriously, is there anyone more inspiring than Michelle Obama?” Clinton asked, as a crowd in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, answered with cheers. Mrs. Obama declared the feeling mutual. She referred to Clinton as “my girl” and offered reassurance that her testimony for Clinton is both personal and political.
Since she’s emerged as Clinton’s headline-grabbing surrogate, people wonder one thing, Mrs. Obama noted.
“Yes, Hillary Clinton is my friend,” she answered.
It’s a reasonable question.
In the East Wing, Clinton dived into policy, undertook a massive project and failed under a harsh spotlight. Mrs. Obama largely steered clear and enjoyed quieter, modest success. Both Ivy League-trained lawyers with their own careers, Clinton bridled under the stereotypes associated with the office, while Mrs. Obama declared herself “mom-in-chief.” While Clinton held onto her maiden name, her Democratic successor let it be known she preferred the “Mrs.” title.
And when her time in the White House was ending, Clinton began plotting her return to Washington. Mrs. Obama hasn’t hidden her readiness to leave. The White House has quickly and repeatedly shot down any talk of the first lady continuing in politics.
Acknowledging her reluctance in the political spotlight, she said, “I would not be here” if she didn’t believe so strongly Clinton would be a president she would trust.
“I believe with all of my heart that Hillary Clinton will be that president,” she said.
Democrats have relished Mrs. Obama’s speeches as high points of the campaign cycle. Her passionate response to Trump’s vulgar comments about women brought an emotional resonance that Clinton, who rarely gets personal on the stump, doesn’t often deliver.
Mrs. Obama’s appearances have become a key part of Clinton’s effort to fire up women — particularly black women, for whom she’s a model and a source of pride. Both Clinton and Mrs. Obama on Thursday revived a line from her DNC speech — “When they go low, we go high” — turning it into a call and response.
The North Carolina event drew some 11,000 people, according to the fire marshal, one of largest crowds of Clinton’s campaign. Trump repeatedly boasts that his crowds are generally larger than hers.
The audience roared as the two women walked onstage, turned to each other and embraced, the first lady towering over the shorter candidate.
The new partnership has made for a striking odd couple on a substance, too.
As first lady, Mrs. Obama has largely dodged controversial issues. She’s stayed focused on her projects involving healthful eating, exercise, support for military families and education for girls — avoiding public opinions on thornier subjects. She’s mastered the art of advocacy through popular culture, while in recent years all but ignoring the possibility of policymaking through legislation. She’s cultivated a brand built on style, glamor and fashion.
It’s a tenure that bears little resemblance to her Democratic predecessor in the East Wing. Clinton came in promising, along with her husband, a new kind of partnership in the White House. Hillary Clinton was a veteran of the feminist movement and ready to expand the office of first lady to suit her experience and passion for policy. She had an office in the West Wing, took over the health care overhaul effort and ultimately became a target of investigations and criticism alongside her husband.
That’s something Mrs. Obama and her aides sought to avoid. Asked to cite role models, Obama has named Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy.
The Clintons and Obamas themselves have a fraught history, one that includes both spouses. While Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battled in 2008, Michelle Obama raised questions about her husband’s opponent, framing the choice between the two as “about character.”
Since then the women have publicly buried the hatchet. They heap praise on each other’s work, although there’s little sign they’ve spent time one-on-one.
Comparing how first ladies use the office is especially tricky, historians note. Because the office comes with no set of constitutional duties, it is also a reflection of an individual’s style, personality, politics and times.
The differences between Clinton’s and Mrs. Obama’s tenures speak in some ways to the differences in their generations — Clinton representing the first wave of baby boomers eager to push boundaries, while Obama benefited from lessons learned, noted Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian at the National First Ladies Library.
“Beneath the surface they both brought a sense of rigor and structure and focus,” he said. “They were very objective-oriented.”
Those objectives were clearly different, he said.
“I think Michelle Obama may end up being perhaps one of the most influential first ladies when it comes to influence on the American public, whereas Hillary has been one of the most important in terms of achievement in terms of policy.”
Clinton, who lost the 2008 Democratic nomination to then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama before becoming his secretary of state, praised Michelle Obama for standing up for the rights of girls and women worldwide, drawing a sharp contrast with Trump.
“I wish I didn’t have to say this. … But indeed, dignity and respect for women and girls is also on the ballot in this election,” Clinton told a crowd of about 11,000. “And I want to thank our first lady for her eloquent, powerful defense of that basic value.”
Michelle Obama’s stinging denunciation of Trump after a leaked 2005 video showed him making lewd remarks and bragging about groping women was seen by many as one of the campaign’s most striking condemnations of the New York businessman.
Without naming Trump, Obama took him to task again in North Carolina, asking the crowd which candidate they wanted to represent their daughters from the White House.
“We want a president who takes this job seriously, and has the temperament and maturity to do it well. Someone who is steady. Someone who we can trust with the nuclear codes,” Obama said.
“I would not be here lying to you: I believe with all of my heart that Hillary Clinton will be that president,” she said.
Trump has fallen behind Clinton in opinion polls ahead of the Nov. 8 election amid a series of accusations from women that Trump groped them or kissed them without their consent. Trump has called the allegations “absolutely false.”
The latest RealClearPolitics poll average shows Clinton with a nearly 6-point national lead over Trump, fueled by declining support for the former reality TV star among women.
Although Michelle Obama was critical of Clinton during the hard-fought 2008 Democratic nominating race, any trace of bitterness appeared long behind them. The two women showed an easy rapport. They embraced and smiled. Obama called Clinton “my girl” and made a point of telling the crowd they were tight.
Clinton promised to take good care of Obama’s White House vegetable garden if she won and wistfully praised the athletic first lady’s dancing skills. “If only,” Clinton said.
She also lauded Obama’s work for children and military families and in what was perhaps a nod to African-Americans she hopes will vote for her in the state, said Obama had faced challenges she had not as a presidential spouse.
“Let’s be real. As our first African-American first lady, she’s faced pressures I never did, and she’s handled them with pure grace,” Clinton said to applause.
Although a sometimes reluctant campaigner, the first lady has thrown herself into the race, and the Clinton campaign has deployed her strategically to increase support among young people and blacks, with whom she is especially popular.
Trump made an appearance in the vital battleground of Ohio, hammering Clinton as corrupt. He said recent emails published by WikiLeaks highlighted how a close Bill Clinton aide helped the couple rake in millions.
“The more emails WikiLeaks releases, the more the lines between the Clinton Foundation, the secretary of state’s office, and the Clintons’ personal finances are blurred,” Trump told thousands of supporters who jammed a livestock arena in Springfield.
He cited a 2011 memo from former Bill Clinton aide Doug Band bragging that he had funneled tens of millions of dollars to “Bill Clinton Inc.”
“Mr. Band called the arrangement ‘unorthodox,'” Trump said. “The rest of us call it outright corrupt.”
Other hacked emails released by WikiLeaks show Chelsea Clinton deeply concerned that Band and other Bill Clinton aides were “hustling” for business that year for their new consultancy firm, Teneo, at the Clinton Global Initiative, the foundation’s glitzy event that brings together companies, government officials and non-profit groups.
WikiLeaks has been publishing thousands of emails this month that were stolen from the account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.