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Good Question: How Important Is The First Lady?

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – They are both called their husband’s “secret weapons.”

While Ann Romney and Michelle Obama aren’t exactly campaigning for the job of first lady, they are campaigning for their husbands.

But how important is the first lady, and why are they so popular?

“First ladies tend to take on apolitical role,” said Jacob Reitan, in downtown Minneapolis Tuesday.

America loves its first ladies. According to the Gallup Poll, Barbara Bush left the White House with an 85 percent approval rating. Laura Bush averaged 73 percent.

“I’m a strong Democrat, and I always thought Laura Bush was a fantastic first lady and did a lot in service of our country in that role,” Reitan said.

Michelle Obama is nine percentage points more popular than her husband, according to Gallup. She has a 66 percent approval rating.

“First ladies are the best surrogates possible,” said Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota political science professor.

In general, the spouses “advocate for the policies of their husband without getting into the thick of the debate,” she said.

But there are exceptions. Hillary Clinton ran her husband’s effort to reform health care, and she paid the political price. Bill Clinton had a 57 percent approval rating, while Hillary Clinton was lower, at 53 percent.

That did flip after the health care effort failed, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. Hillary Clinton then had a 59 percent approval rating, according to Gallup, while her husband was at 55 percent.

“She was polarizing for many reasons,” Pearson said.

But she said the first ladies have had an impact. Betty Ford worked on behalf of women’s rights and put drug and alcohol addiction recovery in the public eye. Literacy was the focus of Barbara Bush. Nancy Reagan pushed “Just Say No” to drugs. Education was the focus of Laura Bush. And fitness and nutrition have been Michelle Obama’s issues.

“It’s actually really beneficial to have the first lady take on different issues in her portfolio,” Pearson said.

On Facebook, Lori wrote that the first lady “seems to be the most non-partisan thing that Washington has to offer.”

According to the First Ladies Library, the history of first ladies as campaigners tracks to 1920, when women first got the right to vote. Florence Harding was the first woman to vote for her husband.

She became the first woman to do more than just be photographed as part of the family, she cultivated her own relationship with reporters.

“The American presidency is so personal,” Pearson said.

She added: “The notion of the first lady becomes important, we learn a lot about them and want to know the details of their lives.”

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