WASHINGTON (AP) — Michelle Obama is speaking out about the toll that gun violence is taking on young people, in a shift that shows the first lady’s willingness to tackle new and polarizing issues as she shapes her second term.
A meeting with high school students from a poor, gang-infested neighborhood in Chicago, her hometown, led Mrs. Obama to put a new spin on the stalled legislative debate over whether to ban firearms or impose new background checks on people who want to buy guns.
A mother to a teen and a tween, Mrs. Obama argues that the debate also is about the country’s obligation to help kids like these grow up and become adults. Several of the school’s current and former students were killed by gunfire within the past year.
The first lady faces the issue of immigration Tuesday when she gives the keynote speech at the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group. Immigration is one of President Barack Obama’s top second-term priorities.
Aides say the first lady isn’t making gun violence a new and distinct issue, but is folding it into her work encouraging youth to focus on getting an education.
By reaching beyond the pair of relatively safe issues she has pushed — reducing childhood obesity 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. Americans tend to prefer that their 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 — one in Boston and two in New York, including on Park Avenue — Mrs. Obama talked about a meeting she had with some of the “best and brightest” students at Chicago’s Harper High School, including the valedictorian, a star athlete and ROTC participants.
But instead of “reveling in the joys of their youth,” like completing college applications, planning for the prom or getting a driver’s license, she told the audiences of 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.”
It is unclear whether Mrs. Obama will continue to speak about gun violence or immigration after the address to La Raza. The speech is one of her few remaining public events before she takes her traditional month off in August. But her words and actions on the gun issue have drawn notice.
She recently said that 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.”
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