Michelle Obama is not running for president, people close to her insist. And she’s not running for mayor of Chicago, or for Congress, or for the Board of Overseers at Harvard, where her older daughter Malia started last year. She’s made that clear, repeatedly and painstakingly, describing how she was dragged “kicking and screaming” into the political arena by a husband for whom deflecting speculation about her hypothetical political career has become a part-time job in its own right.
“I think I have as much of a chance of dancing in the Bolshoi Ballet in 2020 as the likelihood of her running for office,” says David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s former chief strategist.
Oh, and in case that’s not clear enough: “I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever,” she writes in her new memoir, “Becoming,” released this Tuesday.
And yet: During a month in which the former first lady has launched a massive tour for her said memoir, seen the most intimate details of her personal life become breaking news notifications, and leveraged her celebrity in service of a voter outreach program that was part of the highest midterm turnout since the advent of universal suffrage, the political class still can’t cease its chatter about Michelle 2020. A recent poll featured her at the top of the heap among Democratic women facing President Trump in a theoretical 2020 matchup, beating him by a whopping 13 points. Just a day after the 2016 election, CNN’s Chris Cillizza tweeted: “Throwing it out there: Michelle Obama in 2020? It’s not totally crazy … ”
But as Hillary Clinton can attest, absence from the field of presidential candidates tends to make voters’ hearts grow fonder—once the former secretary of State, who at one point was more popular than Barack Obama or Joe Biden, declared her intention to run, she saw her ratings plummet. Or just ask her husband, who entered the White House with a not-inconsiderable 41 percent approval rating among Republicans—only to leave office with that number at 14 percent.
Then there’s the sheer soul-crushing misery of running for office in the era of 24/7 cable news, social media and Donald Trump—and the very qualities that make Michelle Obama such an appealing alternative to so many voters are what make her exceedingly unlikely to run.
“There’s a lot about politics she doesn’t like,” says Axelrod. “The coarseness, the meanness, sometimes the silliness, the focus on the trivial … I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
So why the memoir, why all the voter participation efforts, if she doesn’t want to be in the arena? The former first lady believes she can get close enough to the heart of politics to make a difference without wading into the partisan fray, people familiar with her thinking say.
“I think she’s been clear that she doesn’t have a love of politics, but [her recent activities are] her way of encouraging people to stand up for who they are and the things they feel are important,” says Susan Sher, Obama’s former chief of staff. “That’s key to her, as opposed to saying, ‘Vote for this person vs. that person.’”
In that spirit, just this year she’s launched the nonpartisan When We All Vote, aimed at boosting midterm turnout, and the Global Girls Alliance, a program through the Obama Foundation aimed at educating girls in the United States and the developing world. And, of course, there’s the rock-star-adjacent stadium tour and best-selling memoir; extra tour dates were added in Washington and Brooklyn to accommodate demand, and book retailer Barnes & Noble announced this week they haven’t seen as high demand for any book since the 2015 release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.”
In other words, when the ongoing slap-fight between Democrats and Republicans goes low, Michelle Obama plans to keep going high, hoping her megawatt celebrity can bring some of the civic goodwill that surrounded her husband’s political ascent back to a bitterly divided country. If Democrats are looking for a savior to deliver them from Trump, it won’t be her.