Published April 22, 2012
In a recent interview, Stephen Colbert asked first lady Michelle Obama which show "has more gravitas as a broadcaster" -- The Colbert Report or iCarly.
The funny man wasn't just fishing for compliments. He was pointing out that the first lady is just about everywhere, from Comedy Central to Nickelodeon.
Lately, Michelle Obama is no stranger to television entertainment. She's already outpaced past first ladies, like Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, in the number of TV appearances she's made over the first four years of a president's term.
Dan Gainor, of the Media Research Center, said Michelle Obama really is "off the charts" in the number of times she's appeared in entertainment television cameos, even more so "than I dare say many big name actors and actresses."
In just the last four months, viewers have seen Obama do push-ups with Ellen DeGeneres, play tug o' war with Jimmy Fallon, laugh along with Jay Leno and David Letterman, dance on Disney's "iCarly," work out with "The Biggest Loser" contestants at the White House, appear at the BET Honors, smile on "Sesame Street" and chat about healthy school lunches with Rachael Ray.
Whether the appearances are sincere or just political is up for debate. Democratic political strategist Doug Schoen suggested they were a little bit of both.
"I think they have a great asset and they're using it," Schoen said. "At its core, there is an election in seven months and it helps."
Between 2001 and 2004, Laura Bush appeared in about 12 television shows -- including "The Barbara Walters Summer Special," "Larry King Live," "The Tonight Show," "Fox and Friends," "The O'Reilly Factor," "LIVE! with Kelly," and "Sesame Street." Since President Obama took office in 2009, Michelle Obama has appeared on television about 44 times, and that number continues to grow.
Schoen, who was a researcher and strategic consultant for former President Bill Clinton, noted Hillary Clinton was not really on the campaign trail in 1996, but instead maintained a low profile while she published her book "It Takes a Village." Hillary Clinton made about 19 television appearances from 1993 to 1996, but most were for events like The Kennedy Center Honors or non-fiction television series not geared toward her husband's reelection. She also made an appearance on "Sesame Street" in 1993.
Obama's appearances are working for her, Schoen said.
"I think Michelle Obama is a terrific asset for the president," he said.
Gainor had no quarrel with that claim, but said it's all about the 2012 race.
Michelle Obama gains "an overwhelmingly amount of positive coverage" from being on these shows, said Gainor, who also added that these appearances allow her to campaign for her husband.
"What she's doing is political," said Gainor. "She's getting her face out there because it's an election year."
During these appearances, Obama is not burdened by questions about unemployment or health care -- many of the issues that stir controversy for the White House. Instead, she focuses on her initiatives like "Joining Forces," which is designed to honor U.S. troops, and "Let's Move," which tries to educate people on the dangers of childhood obesity.
Hannah August, Michelle Obama's press secretary, stressed the importance of the anti-obesity campaign in a statement to Fox News, and said the TV shows are a great venue for pushing out that message.
"There is no silver bullet to solve the problem of childhood obesity -- we need everyone from parents to teachers to business and faith leaders to join together to make our country healthier," August said. "We also need to make sure that families have the tools they need to be healthy, and TV programs that are popular with kids and parents are a great way to talk about how we can all work together to help our children lead healthier lives."
Schoen said "the initiatives are sincere," but it would be "wrong not to understand there is a political motivation."
Gainor argued this is one way for the Obama administration to reach out to Hollywood for fundraising. "It's ridiculous the amount of other shows that have put her on," he said.
President Obama recently attended a fundraiser in Hollywood as he mingled with supporters at the Westin Diplomat Hotel and tried to re-ignite support. George Clooney is also hosting a fundraiser for Obama at his Los Angeles home in May.
While the rise in the first lady's television appearances may have something to do with the increase in television shows and networks, Gainor said Hollywood celebrities give "overwhelmingly to Democrats" -- and Republican first ladies, like Laura Bush, "would get nowhere near the Hollywood support" or popularity as Michelle Obama.