Michelle to the rescue as Democrats flounder

For nearly two years she has nurtured the executive mansion's vegetable patch, steered a campaign for healthier eating and played the good host on Pennsylvania Avenue. But yesterday America's first lady, Michelle Obama, was plunging back into the muckier business of retail politics.

Less than three weeks away from the mid-term elections when voters will pick all of the House of Representatives, one third of the US Senate as well as several state governorships, both Mrs Obama and husband Barack are now in full campaign mode. But for many struggling Democrat runners, it is Michelle they would rather see on the trail.

While the last few days have seen President Obama adopting a strikingly aggressive new tone against the Republicans, notably alleging repeatedly that money from foreign sources is illegally being used to finance television advertising targeting Democratic candidates, Mrs Obama offers a softer alternative. White House sources signal that she will avoid partisan attacks.

"This isn't something I do very often," she was due to say at a Democratic fundraiser in Milwaukee last night, according to prepared remarks made available by the White House. "In fact, I haven't really done it since a little campaign you might remember a couple of years ago."

In the coming days, Mrs Obama will headline fundraising events for Democrats in Illinois, New York, California and Colorado. On Sunday, she will speak alongside the president at a rally for Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, who is trying to hold on to his job. It will be the first joint campaign appearance for the Obamas since 2008.

That so many Democrats are distancing themselves from Mr Obama may seem a surprise to those who remember how brightly he shone in 2008. Yet he now has low approval ratings and his healthcare reform has become a political liability, not a boon. By contrast Michelle, who, according to a recent Associated Press poll, has a favourability rating around 68 per cent (as against the mid-forties for her husband) offers a helpful glow.

In a New York Times interview to be published this weekend, Mr Obama addresses the expectations that were set by his 2008 campaign. "The mythology has emerged somehow that we ran this flawless campaign, I never made a mistake, that we were master communicators, everything worked in lockstep. And somehow now, as president, things are messy, they don't always work as planned and people are mad at us," he says. "That's not how I look at stuff, because I remember what the campaign was like. And it was just as messy and just as difficult."

At a fundraiser in Washington on Tuesday, Mr Obama pressed on with his foreign funding claims even though the White House has not yet offered specific evidence naming any sources. "We don't know if they are being funded by foreign corporations, because they're not disclosed," he said. Democratic Party advertising has pointed a finger at the US Chamber of Commerce against images of piles of Chinese currency.

"We are seeing an attempt to demonise specific groups and distract Americans from a failed economic agenda," said Bruce Josten, executive vice- president at the Chamber. "With three weeks until Election Day, it's time to return to the discussion that Americans care most about: job creation."

The White House faced a new quandary after a federal judge issued an injunction against the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law restricting gays and lesbians in the military. The Obama administration is torn between appealing the injunction to protect established law or doing nothing, which could ignite gay rights as a potentially explosive new election issue.