January 21, 2010

Michelle Obama’s Strong Personal Image

Views of Recent First Ladies

As she begins her second year as first lady, Michelle Obama has a higher personal favorable rating than her husband, and her image is more positive than that of her two predecessors in the White House.

In a November survey by the Pew Research Center, 71% expressed a favorable opinion of Michelle Obama while just 16% expressed an unfavorable view. By comparison, 65% had a favorable opinion of Barack Obama, while 30% felt unfavorably (For full results from this survey, see “Blacks Upbeat about Black Progress, Prospects,” Jan. 12, 2010.)

In her first year in the White House, Laura Bush’s personal rating was a bit less positive; in July 2001, 64% said they felt favorably toward Laura Bush, while 17% expressed an unfavorable opinion. Hillary Clinton was less popular in her first year than either Michelle Obama or Laura Bush. In May 1993, 60% had a favorable opinion of Hillary Clinton, compared with 29% who expressed an unfavorable opinion.

Clinton, an architect of the Clinton administration’s health care reform proposal, was a more divisive political figure than Obama or Bush. In May 1993, half of Republicans (50%) had an unfavorable impression of Hillary Clinton while 41% had a positive view. By comparison, the balance of opinion among members of the opposition party was positive for Laura Bush in July 2001 (53% favorable vs. 25% unfavorable among Democrats) and for Michelle Obama in November 2009 (50% favorable vs. 36% unfavorable among Republicans).

Michelle Obama’s image among whites is only somewhat less positive than Laura Bush’s during her first year in the White House: In November, 66% of whites had a favorable opinion of Michelle Obama while 20% felt unfavorably. In July 2001, Laura Bush’s personal rating among whites was 70% favorable, 13% unfavorable. But Obama’s rating among blacks was overwhelmingly favorable (96%), while about as many blacks had an unfavorable opinion of Bush (39%) as a favorable view (37%). Favorable opinions of Hillary Clinton were lower than for Obama both among whites (57% favorable) and blacks (84% favorable).

Michelle Obama More Popular than Barack

Opinions about Michelle Obama changed only modestly during her first year in the White House. In January 2009, shortly before Barack Obama’s inauguration, 68% said they had a favorable impression of her compared with 15% who felt unfavorably. The proportion expressing a favorable view climbed to 76% in April and then edged downward to 71% in November; unfavorable opinions of Michelle Obama barely moved.

By contrast, favorable opinions of Barack Obama fell by 14 points between January and November (from 79% to 65%), while unfavorable opinions doubled (from 15% to 30%). Over this period, positive views of Barack Obama declined by 25 points among Republicans (from 59% to 34%) and by 14 points among independents (from 78% to 64%).

Michelle Obama retained more political cross-over appeal than did her husband. Her favorable rating among Republicans, which rose during her first few months in the White House, slipped by nine points between April and November (from 59% to 50%); nonetheless, her favorable ratings among Republicans remained much higher than her husband’s. And while 32% of independents expressed negative views of Barack Obama in November, just half as many independents (16%) expressed an unfavorable opinion of Michelle Obama.