WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama climbed into her charter jet Friday and flew here from Chicago for lunch and a speech — I clocked it at seven minutes — before an influential women’s group whose board includes key supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Obama’s brief appearance before the National Partnership for Women & Families — she turned around and flew right back home when she was done — shows how Obama is shaping her role as a potential first lady and how the Obama campaign is working hard to build bridges to the women who supported Clinton over presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama.
Michelle Obama’s visit came in advance of Clinton and Barack Obama making their first joint appearance in Washington on Thursday before big-money Clinton fund-raisers. They will then stump together Friday.
Michelle Obama’s speech to the mostly female audience Friday touched on her experiences as a working woman and mother. It was also about how Obama is shaping what she sees as her role if she becomes first lady. She would take on women’s and family affairs as her signature issues, as I reported in the Chicago Sun-Times on May 10.
Those issues are of great interest to the National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonprofit, non-political organization known for its successful crusades for passage of the Family & Medical Leave Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and other legislation on behalf of working women in this country.
The annual luncheon program where Obama spoke was not a political event. The intended main speaker, booked months ago, was Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, the South Side Chicago native who early on endorsed Barack Obama.
I am writing about this through a political lens because every place Michelle Obama goes at this stage of the campaign represents some sort of strategic judgment. And this decision for her to invite herself to drop by this group at this time was politically smart.
Probably the four most important words in Obama’s speech were the names of two women she paid tribute to: Ellen Malcolm, the chairwoman of the partnership, and Judith Lichtman, a board member.
Malcolm is also the president of Emily’s List — one of the nation’s largest Democratic political networks, which endorsed and campaigned very hard for Clinton. Lichtman goes back years with Clinton and was a senior adviser on the Clinton campaign in charge of women’s outreach.
Another board member, Cheryl Mills, was general counsel of the Clinton campaign, which made women’s concerns a centerpiece of Clinton’s bid.
To help heal wounds left from the hard-fought Democratic primary, Malcolm traveled to the Obama campaign’s Chicago headquarters last Monday. She met with campaign manager David Plouffe, deputy manager Steve Hildebrand and senior strategist Anita Dunn to talk about unity.
Debra Ness, the organization’s president, told me the campaign called her last week to ask if Obama could come and address the group.
“Certainly we would love to have her come,” Ness replied, especially if Obama wanted to talk about their issues. Before Obama’s speech Friday, she spent 30 minutes with Ness, emphasizing how important women’s issues are to her. Obama then lunched with the group and took the stage to deliver her remarks.
All in all, seven minutes well-spent.