As the 2020 presidential campaign heated up this year, and candidates crisscrossed the country in a pre-pandemic world of handshakes and rallies that seems almost unimaginable now, one question loomed: Where were the Obamas in all this?
On Thursday, Michelle Obama took her first concrete step toward being a factor in the 2020 election. Her nonpartisan voting initiative, When We All Vote, which she founded months before the 2018 midterms, announced a coalition of 31 mayors across the country who will be brainstorming and sharing lessons and practices about how to increase voter registration and civic engagement.
“Voting is bigger than any one party, one issue, one candidate, or one election,” Obama said in a statement. “We’ve got to strengthen our democracy from the bottom up and ensure that more Americans participate in every single election, from the local school board to Congress.”
Before this, former President Barack Obama finally stepped into the 2020 mix in mid-April, endorsing his former vice president, Joe Biden. Since then, he’s made critical remarks about the current administration in commencement addresses, referring to the “so-called grown-ups” who “only pretend to be in charge.” In a private phone call to supporters, he called the Trump administration’s coronavirus response “anemic and spotty.”
Although Michelle Obama has done other voter outreach initiatives this year, Civic Cities is the first effort that lands her squarely inside the election — although the former first lady’s aides insist she’s staying out of the political fray.
It also signals the kind of influence she’s hoping to have, not in stumping for particular candidates or hitting the trail but rather to engage in grass-roots activism with local leaders such as mayors, and particularly in urban areas.
The former first lady has made it clear that voting rights will be one of her chief passions of the post-presidency, not just by founding this voting initiative but also in an emotional moment in the “Becoming” documentary about her book tour, released on Netflix on May 6. Almost half of eligible voters didn’t go to the polls in the 2016 election and a group of political scientists and data analysts found that 4.4 million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 stayed home in 2016, including 11 percent of black voters who cast ballots for Obama in 2012 — one third of abstainers.
The day her family left the White House and handed over the reins by sitting onstage at Trump’s inauguration she described in the documentary as “painful,” particularly because “a lot of our folks didn’t vote, so it was almost like a slap in the face.”
“I understand the people who voted for Trump,” she said in the documentary. “The people who didn’t vote at all, the young people, the women, that’s when you think, ‘Man, people think this is a game.’ “
She went on: “It wasn’t just in this election, but every midterm, every time Barack didn’t get the Congress he needed, that was because our folks didn’t show up. After all that work, they couldn’t be bothered to vote at all. That’s my trauma.”
It bothered her because “she had hoped that what (her husband) had begun was a movement, and movements continue,” said Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend and adviser to the Obamas. “That was a low water mark, and I think it did prompt her to say, ‘Why is it that people only vote if there is a candidate that inspires them?'”
The philosophy of the voting initiative, said Jarrett, who chairs its board, is to encourage voting no matter what for the best candidate on the ticket, “and then work to try to make sure that person can be as good as they can possibly be.” In other words, get someone acceptable in office and then hold them accountable.
The goal of When We All Vote and Civic Cities is not just to increase voter registration but “to change the culture in our country around voting,” Jarrett said. “It’s a travesty that so many Americans opt out of the basic responsibility of citizenship.”
Although Jarrett emphasized that the mayors involved in Civic Cities come from both cities and small towns, the program’s name suggests its emphasis and it is no secret that most cities are Democratic strongholds.
Obama’s partners in the program are mostly Democrats, including Los Angeles’ Eric Garcetti, Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot, Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, and D.C.’s Muriel Bowser, but there are also three Republicans and two independents in the mix.
John Giles, the Republican mayor of Mesa, Arizona, who is part of Civic Cities, said his big goal this cycle is to target registration of Hispanic voters, who make up a third of his city, and young voters. He’s looking for ideas from fellow mayors.
“I have a great deal of respect for Mrs. Obama, but she was not the motivating force for my getting involved,” he said. “The cause is really the compelling reason to get involved.”
Bowser has had a working relationship with the Obamas since they were in office, and it’s one that’s continued as they became the rare first couple to stay in Washington after their time at the White House was done. Bowser is working on encouraging voters to request mail-in ballots but said that she got her closest look at Michelle Obama’s influence recently when the former first lady volunteered to help get out the word about safety from the coronavirus by recording a robocall with testing information for D.C. residents.
“Immediately after that call, we had three times the number of calls into our call center for testing. So people really felt it,” Bowser said.
A similar effort centered on voting might have a similar effect. “She has a very powerful voice,” Bowser said. “And she can put how important it is to vote into a historical and political context that is unique to her.” She added: “Some people think she should be on the ticket. I’m one of those people.”
When he was asked earlier this year whether he’d ask Michelle Obama to be his vice president, Biden said he’d choose her in a “heartbeat,” but, “I don’t think she has any desire to live in the White House again.”
Jarrett emphatically agreed that Obama will not be running for office. “Absolutely not. 100 percent no.”
When they met in the summer of 1991, Jarrett said, Obama was still practicing law “and what was clear to me then is that she has a deep passion for public service. And what became clearer to me later is that does not include politics. She loves the service, not the politics.”
Civic engagement like these voting initiatives “and being a force for good is her life’s work,” said Jarrett, and one that will continue long-term. “But she will not run for political office. Of that I am confident.”