WASHINGTON (AP) — A second term as first lady finds Michelle Obama using her spotlight to draw attention to another issue involving the welfare of children: young people and gun violence.
A meeting with high school students from a rough neighborhood in her hometown of Chicago led Mrs. Obama to start putting a new spin on the stalled legislative debate over access to guns.
A mother to a teen and a tween, Mrs. Obama says the country is obligated to help kids like these grow up and become adults. Several current and former students at Chicago’s Harper High School were killed by gunfire within the past year.
The first lady on Tuesday faced immigration — another new issue for her — when she delivered the keynote speech in New Orleans at the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza. Immigration is one of President Barack Obama’s top second-term priorities, as it is for the Latino advocacy group.
Mrs. Obama urged the group’s members to stay encouraged and continue to press the House to follow the lead of the Senate and pass an immigration bill.
“Do not give up because I promise you my husband won’t give up until a good bill gets on his desk,” she said.
Aides say the first lady isn’t making gun violence a new and distinct issue, but is folding it into the work she’s been doing to encourage youth to focus on getting an education.
By reaching beyond the pair of relatively safe issues she has been pushing — reducing childhood obesity, which she discussed at length at the La Raza conference, and rallying public support for military families — the Harvard-trained lawyer who some say has played it safe is showing a willingness to step outside of her comfort zone.
She’ll need to tread carefully, though. The American public tends to prefer that its first ladies leave the heavier policy lifting to the president.
Rosalynn Carter was criticized for attending Cabinet meetings and Hillary Rodham Clinton was pilloried for running a health care task force in secret. Mrs. Obama is viewed favorably by about two-thirds of the public, higher than her husband, who had a favorability rating of about 53 percent, according to recent polls.
Mrs. Obama fell out of public favor during the 2008 presidential campaign over comments deemed unpatriotic. But once in the White House, she declared herself “mom in chief” to her two kids, planted a vegetable garden, pushed the childhood obesity and military family issues and resurrected her public standing.
At three fundraisers one day in May, in Boston and New York, Mrs. Obama described meeting some of Harper High’s “best and brightest” students, including the valedictorian, a star athlete and ROTC participants.
But instead of “reveling in the joys of their youth,” like college applications, the prom or learning to drive, she told Democratic donors that “these young people were consumed with staying alive.”
“There are so many kids in this country just like them, kids with so much promise, but so few opportunities, good kids who are doing everything they can to break the cycle and beat the odds,” Mrs. Obama said. “We need to be better for them. We need to be better for all of our children in this country because they are counting on us to give them the chances they need for the futures they all deserve.”
The students worry daily about being killed or about someone else being killed, she said.
“One kid told me he felt like he lived in a cage, because he feels like his community is unseen, unheard, and nobody cares about it. What’s our obligation to these kids? We do have one,” she told CBS “Sunday Morning.”
The meeting with Harper High’s students followed the first lady’s speech at a youth violence conference in Chicago this year. Mrs. Obama compared herself to Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old honor student whose death became national news in part because she was shot a mile from the Obamas’ home a few days after she returned from performing at the president’s inauguration.
It is unclear whether Mrs. Obama will continue to speak about gun violence or immigration. The speech to La Raza is likely her final public event before she takes her traditional month off in August.
She recently said first ladies, more than presidents, “get to work on what we’re passionate about.”
“You have an opportunity to speak to your passions and to really design and be very strategic about the issues you care most about,” Mrs. Obama said at a recent forum in Tanzania with African first ladies. “And I just found it just a very freeing and liberating opportunity.”