Michelle Obama will co-host an episode next week of "The View," a daytime TV talk show that scores huge ratings among women. Her appearance on the ABC program will be a media milestone for her husband's campaign - after a rough week of press scrutiny for the Ivy League-educated attorney, corporate executive and mother of two who wants to become the nation's next first lady.
"The View" might not have the political gravitas of "Meet the Press," but it does have a strong following among the white suburban female voters that recent polls show Sen. Barack Obama needs to win the presidential election. There, Michelle Obama - nicknamed "The Closer" by the Obama campaign for her ability to secure voters - will attempt to boost her husband's campaign and also introduce herself to some of the Americans who remain uncomfortable with her.
While the 2008 presidential campaign has been historic in the way an African American and a female candidate have broken barriers, Michelle Obama's attempt to become the first African American first lady is likely to show how attitudes toward black women have evolved.
This week a Rasmussen Reports poll showed that 42 percent of the study's 1,000 respondents, who are likely voters, had an "unfavorable" impression of her - including 25 percent whose impressions were "very unfavorable." So who cares what people think of a candidate's spouse? According to Rasmussen, 61 percent of the respondents said it was at least "somewhat important" in how they vote. Cindy McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, had an overall unfavorable rating of 29 percent, including only 10 percent "very unfavorable."
Not helping negative impressions of Michelle Obama was an on-screen tagline on the Fox News Channel on Wednesday that identified her as "Obama's Baby Mama" - a slang term popularized in the African American community to describe the mother of a child born out of wedlock.
Earlier this month, Fox anchor E.D. Hill referred to Michelle's fist bump with her husband on the night he became the presumptive Democratic nominee as "a terrorist fist jab." Hill apologized four days later, saying it came from something she had read online, though she never identified her source.
At a fundraiser Thursday night, Obama said his opponents are "going to try to make me into a scary guy. They're even trying to make Michelle into a scary person."
So scary that this week the Obama campaign created a Web site called Fight the Smears.com, dedicated to debunking rumors about the couple before they become stories in the mainstream media. Among the site's first posts: a correction to an innuendo, repeated without substantiation on Fox and across the blogosphere, about an alleged tape in which Michelle Obama mentions something about "whitey." No such tape has surfaced.
Some of the attacks on Michelle Obama are rooted in long-held caricatures of African American women, said Avis Jones-DeWeever, public policy and research director of the National Council of Negro Women.
They're seen as either welfare queens or "neck-rolling, brash women with attitude - loud and confrontational," she said.
"The reality of the situation is that these are pre-existing stereotypes of black women in this culture," Jones-DeWeever said. "So (the campaign) has to be very careful with her image and how they present her. Because any time something happens, they're going to pigeonhole her into one of those stereotypes.
"We talk a lot about the possibility of having the first black president. We also could have the first black first lady, and we should talk about what that should mean," she said. "As a nation, we've had problems with black women. Let's be real."
And while many have lauded American voters for their support of an African American and a female candidate in this campaign, the depiction of Michelle Obama, and in many ways Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, shows "clearly we're not beyond" female stereotypes, said Catherine Orenstein, an author who has traced the historical depiction of women. "We're in the thick of it. We have a lot left to do."
Powerful women are often portrayed as "a doll or a bitch," said Orenstein, author of "Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale." Cindy McCain, often shown smiling supportively behind Sen. John McCain, "is described as a Stepford wife." And Michelle Obama, whom Orenstein described as "an exuberant, confident woman," is portrayed as "overbearing and a controller."
"It's the doll or the bitch," Orenstein said. "Neither image is productive, neither is real and both are just a repetition of an old stereotype."
While Barack Obama was painted as an elitist for his comments at a San Francisco fundraiser about "bitter" Americans who cling to religion or guns, the Obamas' backgrounds are more in tune with working-class Americans than those of Cindy or John McCain, Jones-DeWeever said.
Michelle Obama was raised by working-class parents on the South Side of Chicago, and when the Obamas had children, Michelle tried to balance work and family obligations like many working moms. Even though she was her husband's adviser at the law firm where they met, her career sometimes has taken a backseat to his.
"It's not like she was an heiress who didn't have to make those choices," Jones-DeWeever said. Cindy McCain's wealthy family runs a beer distribution empire, and John McCain's father was an admiral. Still, Michelle Obama continues to be dogged by her comment in February to Wisconsin voters that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country. And not just because of what Barack has done, but because I think people are really hungry for change."
TV pundits and commentators chewed on that for days, some arguing she was unpatriotic. But this week, first lady Laura Bush came to Michelle Obama's defense, saying, "I think she probably meant 'I'm more proud,' you know, is what she really meant."
'Have to be very careful'
"You have to be very careful what you say," Bush said. "I mean, I know that, and that's one of the things you learn, and that's one of the really difficult parts both of running for president and for being the spouse of the president, and that is, everything you say is looked at and in many cases misconstrued."
After Clinton became a lightning rod for criticism during her husband's 1992 presidential campaign, some campaign strategists suggested toning down her image on the trail and steering her into more traditional presidential spouse roles. But she remained a trailblazing first lady candidate, and her husband's campaign prevailed.
Will Michelle Obama be pressured to appear demure rather than independent?
"Why does it have to be either one or the other?" asked Joanne Bamberger, founder of the 2-year-old PunditMom blog and an attorney and mother. Bamberger initially supported former Sen. John Edwards, then Clinton, and now she plans to vote for Obama.
"She may not be going on 'The View' to soften up her image. She's trying to reach out to all kinds of women."
Age: 44, born Jan. 17, 1964.
Education: Bachelor's in sociology, Princeton University, 1985. Law degree, Harvard Law School, 1988.
Career: She worked for three years at a Chicago law firm, where she met Barack Obama. In 1991, she began a career in public service with the city of Chicago. In 2005, she was appointed vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Personal: The Obamas were married in 1992 and have two daughters, Malia, 9, and Sasha, 7.