Michelle Obama Shares Gripes About Her Husband

Michelle Obama has a few gripes about her husband, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, and she's not shy about sharing them with thousands of people she doesn't know.

He doesn't put his worn socks in with the dirty clothes. He's worse than a 5-year-old at making the bed. And after he eats, he doesn't put away the butter.

"Today, he still didn't put the butter up after he made his breakfast. I was like, 'You're just asking for it, you know I'm giving a speech. Why don't you just put the butter up?'" she told a roaring crowd at a recent Chicago fundraiser for women backing her husband's campaign.

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It's the sort of intimate ribbing that makes a famous person seem more regular, and observers say it helps humanize the first-term senator from Illinois who has shot to political stardom.

DePaul University marketing professor Bruce Newman, who has written several books on political marketing, sees the teasing as a strategy for Obama, through his wife, to appeal to professional women who might otherwise vote for one of his chief rivals for the nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

By joking about his domestic foibles, Michelle Obama is showing herself as a woman who doesn't kowtow to her husband, he said.

"It's a clever strategy. I think it's very wise," Newman said.

It might even earn him some points with men, said Harvard University's Thomas Patterson, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"Men in a strange sort of way understand leaving butter out and socks laying around. It humanizes the guy," Patterson said.

The Obama camp says the banter isn't a strategy, just the couple being themselves.

Michelle Obama jokingly says she doesn't provide her husband much material, or even the opportunity, to poke fun at her.

"We have a rule in our house that I can tease and he can't," she said in a recent telephone interview.

With her husband fully immersed in the campaign, Michelle Obama is spending one or two days a week on the campaign trail, becoming a popular surrogate when they're not headlining events together. She gets easy laughs with the jabs at her husband, but she doesn't zing him at every appearance.

Her brother, Craig Robinson, who is the men's basketball coach at Brown University, said the teasing reflects who his sister is and is more for her benefit than her husband's.

"Funny enough, it's a way for my sister to kind of stay grounded. I think, you know reminding herself that, along with reminding Barack, we're all just kind of regular people," he said.

A political campaign is a popularity contest and convincing voters that candidates are likable is part of the program. Showing off their personal side is part of that, a lot like when former President Clinton used to play his saxophone, said F. Christopher Arterton, dean of George Washington University's graduate school of political management.

"Voters want to feel that they know and like a person who's a presidential candidate and that he's a kind of regular guy," Arterton said.

Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian of America's first ladies, agrees.

"What she's doing is, is saying presidential candidates, you know, are human beings too," Anthony said.

While much of Michelle Obama's comedic material centers on her husband's domestic shortcomings, she also targets his fame. At a March fundraiser in New York where they both appeared, she told the crowd how she sometimes wished she lived with "Barack Obama the phenomenon."

"Then there's the Barack Obama who lives in my house," she said. "That guy's not as impressive. He still has trouble ... putting his socks actually in the dirty clothes, and he still doesn't do a better job than our 5-year-old daughter Sasha at making his bed, so you'll have to forgive me if I'm a little stunned at this whole Barack Obama thing."

He plays into the ribbing, which is always tempered by great praise for him.

"I hate following my wife," the candidate said when he took the stage at the March event. "It is true my wife is smarter, better looking. She's a little meaner than I am."

Still, there's always a chance some voters could be turned off by the domestic exchanges because it's not the macho image they like to see in presidential candidates, Newman said.

"I think that's a risk," he said.

There's also a potential downside if voters were to perceive Obama as not supportive of his wife at home, Arterton said.

History shows that what potential first ladies say can mean political trouble for their husbands.

There was Hillary Clinton, who during her husband's first presidential campaign defended her work as a lawyer by saying she could have "stayed home and baked cookies and had teas" — a comment critics called a swipe at stay-at-home mothers.

During John Kerry's unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign, he had to defend his outspoken wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who once even joked that her husband was in the bathroom when he learned of some early primary victories.

"Everything they do and say is commented upon and can be turned either into a parody ... a sort of sardonic kind of knockdown that's humiliating," Anthony said, "or it can be turned into a serious political issue."

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