Last month, Joe Biden sparked renewed interest in putting two familiar names on a Democratic presidential ticket when he said off-hand that he would pick Michelle Obama “in a heartbeat” if she would agree to be his running mate. He should take the prospect more seriously.
If Biden really wants to lead the most progressive administration in U.S. history, he is going to need a partner who can galvanize support among the Democratic base. As we saw in the 2016 election, a mere endorsement from both Obamas does not generate the turnout that comes with actually having an Obama on the ticket.
In addition to greatly boosting his chances of winning in November, Michelle Obama would help sustain progressive enthusiasm and engagement should he win, which in turn will enable the Democrats to accomplish major legislative victories once in office.
Sure, Michelle Obama has stated unequivocally that there is “zero chance” she would run for president. Given the brutal reality of life in the political spotlight, it is entirely understandable that she would not want to subject her family to a second round in the ring. But it’s one thing for her to choose not to run. It’s another if her party’s presidential nominee implores her to help him defeat Donald Trump, given how high the stakes are.
That’s why Joe Biden should call upon Michelle Obama to serve the nation in a way that only she can.
As vice president, Michelle Obama would build upon her vast experience working on behalf of the American people—before, during, and after her time as first lady. That experience would prepare her to serve at a crucial moment when the country is desperate for intelligent, empathetic, and eloquent leadership. In her long and varied career before entering public service, she was a big-firm lawyer, an entrepreneurial nonprofit leader, and a public health executive at a nonprofit hospital.
More than that, though, Michelle Obama would provide the Democratic ticket with a critical missing link: a powerful and compelling voice as one of America’s leading storytellers. She actually won this year’s Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Recording for the audiobook version of her autobiography. And Higher Ground, the film production company she runs with her husband, shared in the Oscar for Best Documentary for American Factory.
Recently, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents and their children are tuning into “Mondays with Michelle Obama,” a collaboration with PBS Kids on Facebook and YouTube, to hear the former First Lady read classics such as “The Gruffalo” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” In short, she has that unique gift of being able to connect with audiences.
The ability to communicate and resonate with the American people is paramount to winning the White House in our current era. History makes that clear. In 1980, the year CNN was launched as the first full-time cable news channel, Ronald Reagan, a vintage voice from Hollywood, prevailed over technocrat Jimmy Carter. In 1984, Reagan crushed the earnest civil servant, Walter Mondale. Folksy George W. Bush managed to aw-shucks his way past two lifelong public servants in Al Gore and John Kerry, neither of whom could find the right words or the right way of reaching the American people.
Among Democrats, only Bill Clinton and Barack Obama connected with the electorate through their powerful stories of hope. Clinton came from “a town called Hope” and Obama laid out his remarkable political vision in his pre-election book The Audacity of Hope, which was both the title of his best-seller and the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that launched his national political career.
Anyone who has read Michelle Obama’s Becoming—or heard the audiobook in her own warm, clear voice—knows that her personal story of hard work, perseverance, and personal triumph over adversity and sorrow, is a quintessentially American tale. Whereas most book tours are conducted in libraries and bookstores, Michelle Obama filled sports arenas last year, proving that the country cannot get enough of her. For those who missed her epic book tour, a new documentary on it, eponymously titled Becoming, premiered on Netflix this month.
The other prospective vice-presidential candidates all have appealing attributes, but none come close to Michelle Obama’s raw star power—something Joe Biden desperately needs. His media appeal is anemic, with just over 50,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel. By contrast, Michelle Obama has 38 million followers on Instagram.
Michelle Obama is far more popular than other prospective vice-presidential candidates and much more popular than Biden himself. According to favorability ratings released by YouGov, Michelle Obama is viewed favorably by 57 percent of Americans, with only 30 percent holding a negative view of her. By contrast, Elizabeth Warren has a much narrower 39 to 34 percent favorability rating, whereas opinion is split evenly 33 to 33 percent on Kamala Harris.
Over the next several months, the presidential campaign will be waged in an unprecedented fashion, relying largely on digital media to connect with voters while traditional political practices, such as big rallies and door knocking, are curtailed.
In the 2016 election, Donald Trump realized that commercial television executives would carry his vaudevillian political rallies, filled with rage and bombast, knowing they would bring great ratings. Because he was garish and outlandish, an expert in the language and cadence of reality TV, Trump was able to dominate the media and dictate the terms of debate. During the pandemic, he has once again shown that he can command the network cameras to hang on his every word, not because they are newsworthy or true, but because they are ratings gold.
If Democrats want to compete on the national stage with Trump, especially in an unprecedented election in which reaching voters digitally will be even more important, they need to field a ticket that will deliver a blockbuster audience. Michelle Obama is the only figure in American politics who can command that attention. She would be able to greatly amplify the Democratic message and would drive voter participation through the roof.
Even beyond her unrivaled ability to command the spotlight, Michelle Obama’s substantive experience in and out of public office makes her uniquely qualified to help lead the nation at this dark moment.
As first lady, she led two signature initiatives that have direct relevance to the challenges ahead: Let’s Move, a nationwide public health effort to reduce childhood obesity, and Joining Forces, a nonprofit to assist military families through innovative interventions, such as helping military spouses obtain professional credentials when moving to new postings.
As we work to rebuild a healthy nation in the aftermath of COVID-19, America will need a voice in leadership that can offer clear guidance on healthy lifestyle practices. Michelle Obama’s great success with the Let’s Move campaign makes her well equipped to meet that challenge. And millions of medical workers will need an advocacy effort like Joining Forces, which will help them address their own health and well-being in the wake of the crisis.
And before she resigned to devote herself fully to her husband’s presidential campaign, Michelle Obama was vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospital, giving her a special perspective on the needs of patients, hospitals, and the health care system that few other politicians can claim.
Finally, in her current role as a private citizen, one of Michelle Obama’s major initiatives has been When We All Vote, a campaign to promote voter registration and fight voter suppression nationwide. These efforts will need to be central to the Democratic platform for the party to succeed in November and beyond.
There’s an old adage: In a democracy, people get the leaders they deserve. While we may not deserve Michelle Obama, we do need her. And so does Joe Biden.