Michelle Obama, speaking as a wife, mother and daughter — but not as a policymaker like a previous first lady — urged women on Friday to join her husband's fight to overhaul health care.
Her 23-minute speech, embraced by a receptive female audience at the White House, contributed to the administration's all-out public relations push on health care. President Barack Obama will resume it Sunday with appearances on five morning news shows, followed by a visit Monday to CBS's David Letterman show.
Mrs. Obama focused on the White House's efforts to expand coverage and block insurers' ability to drop customers who get seriously ill. But she stopped well short of the deeply involved, hands-on role played by another first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, nearly two decades ago.
In urging passage of "my husband's plan," Mrs. Obama stuck mainly to the themes and backdrops of more traditional first ladies, including Laura Bush. She hugged three female cancer survivors before taking the stage, and spoke repeatedly from the perspective of a mother and wife who sympathized with less-wealthy women's plights.
"For two years on the campaign trail, this was what I heard from women, that they were being crushed, crushed by the current structure of our health care," the first lady said.
Her Friday speech was part of the White House's strategy of keeping Michelle Obama on a middle path. She walks a line between purely ceremonial events typical of, say, a Pat Nixon, and the hefty policymaking role assumed 16 years ago by Clinton, a fellow Ivy League law school graduate.
Clinton, now the secretary of state, was hailed by feminists for taking the lead in crafting a comprehensive plan to overhaul health care when her husband took office in 1993. Bill Clinton famously said voters were getting "two for the price of one."
Politically, however, the effort failed. "Hillarycare," as detractors called it, was drafted in secret and thrust upon Congress and the public as an all-or-nothing proposition.
Its collapse contributed to Republicans' takeover of Congress in 1994, and Hillary Clinton never again played such a high-profile policyshaping role in her husband's presidency.
Michelle Obama, a former hospital executive, has the brains, experience and charm to play a plausible part in helping her husband craft and sell his health care agenda. But the Obamas absorbed many lessons from the Clintons' earlier travails, and the restrained, selective use of the first lady's appeal is among them.
Some political strategists think they are hitting the mark just fine.
Targeting Mrs. Obama's involvement mainly to women "is effective, because she depoliticizes it for people," said Jennifer Palmieri, a former Clinton administration aide who closely tracks health care issues. The first lady is fully credible as a mother and wife, Palmieri said, and she speaks directly to women who make difficult health care decisions for their families but are sometimes turned off by the fiery politics surrounding the debate.
"She can lift the conversation out of the Congress," Palmieri said.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton testified before Congress about her husband's health care agenda, tying herself intimately to the rough politics that eventually sank it.
Mrs. Obama was preceded Friday by three women with emotional stories about losing health coverage while battling cancer and other challenges.
"The status quo is unacceptable," the first lady said in her remarks. "It is holding women and families back."
Women are "disproportionately affected by this issue because of the roles that we play in families," she said. And women "are more likely to work part-time, or to work in small companies or businesses that don't provide any insurance at all."
Mrs. Obama urged women to call members of Congress and to rebut false claims about her husband's health care proposals. "No longer can we sit by and watch the debate take on a life of its own," she said.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the first lady is popular, "and if she can help out, we're happy to have her." But he said he knew of no plans to have her speak again on health care in the near future.
Questioned Friday on health care at the Brookings Institution, Hillary Clinton predicted that the Obamas will succeed because conditions have grown worse for many Americans in recent years.
"Now, will it be everything any one person would want? No, of course not, that's not the nature of the compromise required in a legislative setting," she said.
Vice President Joe Biden will step into the health care debate next week, with scheduled speeches to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners on Tuesday, and at a Washington-area retirement community on Wednesday.
Meanwhile Friday, the Democratic National Committee announced and e-mail campaign, "Call 'Em Out," that asks party activists to push back when critics make accusations the party considers false or misleading.
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