Michelle Obama is jumping into the 2018 campaigns with a voter registration initiative that will be strictly nonpartisan — exciting and frustrating top Democrats who’d like the popular former first lady to actively campaign for candidates.
The initiative, scheduled to be launched Thursday, is the result of months of quiet conversations and planning full of false starts and uncertainty about whether to go forward. It will have the former first lady appear in public service announcements and at live events throughout the country into the fall, according to multiple people informed of the plans.
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She’ll be joined by several A-list celebrities, including actor Tom Hanks, country stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Houston Rockets star Chris Paul, singer Janelle Monae and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The first PSA will go out Thursday, with more in the process of being lined up, featuring other prominent activists and players. The group will be incorporated as a nonprofit, separate from the Obama Foundation, the personal offices of Barack and Michelle Obama, and Citizen 44, the LLC that the former president himself pays for to handle his own political involvement.
Named “When We All Vote,” it will be stocked with prominent Obama alumni, including Valerie Jarrett as president of the board and former first lady chief of staff Tina Tchen as treasurer. Pete Rouse, an Obama senior adviser who served as interim White House chief of staff, will also be on the board. The CEO will be Kyle Lierman, a former senior policy adviser in the White House who founded Civic Advisors, a “social impact strategy” and consulting firm home to a number of Obama White House alumni.
Money is still being raised for what people involved with the planning have told others would be an $8 million budget. Organizers plan to raise much of it through corporate sponsorships and foundation grants — all while navigating around nonprofit laws and Democratic donors who already are being hit up nonstop by candidates, committees and other groups seeking cash.
The new group is planning a series of events building up to a late-September crescendo of rallies and trainings. Along the way, there will be several voter registration days of action, followed by “GOTV days of action” as the elections approaches.
Organizers intend to send personal messages to people urging them to register. According to one document describing the group’s plans, it will partner with “outlets that young Americans use most.”
Representatives of When We All Vote confirmed the celebrities involved in the initiative but otherwise declined to comment.
For years, Michelle Obama has been the most sought-after surrogate for Democratic candidates. She has consistently disappointed them and their operatives, however, by agreeing to only a handful of appearances each cycle.
With Democrats on high alert going into the midterms — desperate to push Republicans from power, but deeply anxious that they will come up short — questions are circulating among party activists and operatives about Michelle Obama’s decision to take herself off the campaign trail directly as a player.
Consigning one of the most persuasive Democrats to nonpartisan endeavors has them wondering whether this initiative is out of step with the moment. At a Beverly Hills fundraiser last month for the Democratic National Committee, the former president himself joked that these days his wife is in even higher demand these days than he is. “You can’t afford Michelle,” he told the high-dollar crowd.
Michelle Obama’s staff has gone back and forth on the question about whether she’ll try to weave in a few campaign appearances on behalf of candidates.
“Mrs. Obama is really excited about this voter registration effort, and her fall schedule is still coming together,” said one person close to her.
Since the 2016 election, Michelle Obama has been even scarcer in public than during her time in the White House. When she has popped up, it’s been with words clearly directed toward President Donald Trump.
In an appearance on “Ellen” in January, she said Americans must stay open-hearted and “forget what they’re saying in Washington.” The following month, she told a group of educators in Washington that they are “what makes America great.” And in June, she spoke out against Trump’s family separation policy, but only by tweeting her agreement with an op-ed penned by fellow former first lady Laura Bush.
Meanwhile, like former President Barack Obama, she also has been doing a number of paid speeches.
Trump’s election has been a challenge for Michelle Obama not just because of policies that so contradict — and in many cases, reverse — her husband’s. His very victory, along with those of many other Republicans who supported him, is a direct challenge to her “when they go low, we go high” 2016 convention message, which had become a rallying cry for Democrats sure that Hillary Clinton would easily dispense with Trump.
To the former first lady, though, the voter registration drive is the best way to take on a prominent role without engaging directly in electoral politics, which she has little affinity for. And it fits with a larger theory about political engagement that she shares with her husband: The more people who vote, they believe, the better it will be for Democrats overall. Obama will hit the campaign trail for candidates, but he also has been stressing nonpartisan engagement through his foundation.
Then there’s another motive at play: her 400-page memoir, “Becoming,” is due out Nov. 13, a week after Election Day. She’ll be doing a nationwide book tour, and the first lady and her staff don’t want that to be overshadowed by politics.