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Boom Times for First Lady's Business Partnerships

Boom Times for First Lady's Business Partnerships

By Alexis Simendinger - March 12, 2013

Who says the Obama administration has rocky relations with the business community? Michelle Obama is building corporate alliances her husband should envy.

She does it with encouragement rather than requirements, believing, like most first ladies before her, that she will catch more flies with honey. Mrs. Obama’s personal brand is so well recognized and her media spotlight so intense that companies understand her sway among consumers, especially America’s moms.

Last week she thanked sports apparel maker Reebok (and offered a warm hug to company ambassador and 2012 Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning, who introduced her) for committing $30 million to increase kids’ exercise as part of Let’s Move! Active Schools, part of her campaign to curb obesity among young people.

“I just want to take a moment today to say how grateful I am for Reebok’s longstanding commitment to this issue, and for their groundbreaking investment to take that work to the next level,” she enthused, offering tales from her own mom-goes-grocery-shopping days (before the Obama family moved to Washington).

Looking chic in a vibrant, swingy dress and boots, the first lady linked some promising statistics to Reebok’s endeavors designed to encourage elementary school youngsters to exercise.

“Thanks to efforts like these, today we are finally starting to see some results,” she said. “In Mississippi, obesity rates among elementary school children have dropped 13 percent. Rates are also falling in cities like Philadelphia and New York, and in California, as well. So together, slowly but surely, we are beginning to turn the tide on childhood obesity in America.”

This week, Mrs. Obama will challenge CEOs who are members of the Business Roundtable to hire more military veterans. She’ll drop by their quarterly meeting in Washington to buttonhole executives who together control more than $7.3 trillion in annual revenues and call the shots for 16 million employees.

Reebok earned the first lady’s shout-out during a Washington summit of the nonprofit Partnership for a Healthier America, which tapped her as keynote speaker. The organization offered a report card assessing the tangible progress of some of the corporate pledges Mrs. Obama has celebrated -- pledges to offer families healthier food choices and to encourage kids to stay fit.

Since 2010, the first lady has offered her White House seal of approval to the Walt Disney Co., Wal-Mart Stores, the manufacturer of Birds Eye frozen vegetables, and Darden Restaurants, representing eateries such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster, to name a few of the nearly 50 corporate collaborators identified in the Partnership’s progress report for 2012. Some of the companies are adding new commitments each year, which affords them extra openings to showcase support for the administration’s evangelism about healthier eating and active lifestyles, especially when it comes to America’s sedentary youngsters.

Before Republicans took control of the House in 2011, Mrs. Obama’s public approach was not quite as publicly focused on voluntary corporate efforts to “do the right thing,” noted Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Initially, the first lady did a bit more to tout legislation and regulatory efforts aimed at reducing childhood obesity. By the 2012 presidential election, however, food politics had become a part of Republicans’ critiques of the administration, and the White House took note.

“The danger in partnering with industry,” Wootan said, “is you have to really balance the pros and cons. If you get too close to industry, you might get reluctant to regulate those corporations,” she noted.

The ties can appear direct or diaphanous, as the first lady’s projects tap into a network of campaign supporters, fellow Democrats and executives sympathetic to the administration for all sorts of reasons. Hyatt, for example, is one of the companies in the Partnership for a Healthier America (whose summit took place at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington). Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker, a major Obama fundraiser and donor, is reportedly on the president’s short list to head the Commerce Department.

The president recently nominated the former president of the Walmart Foundation, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, a former member of the Clinton administration, to become his third budget director. Last month, Wal-Mart Stores capitalized on a much publicized visit from the first lady, who saluted the company’s commitments to expand healthy food choices for customers in its stores.

A few weeks ago, one of the few people in California who knew in advance about Mrs. Obama’s surprise participation at the conclusion of the Academy Awards was Robert Iger, chairman and CEO of Disney, according to the Los Angeles Times. Disney is the parent company of ABC News, and ABC broadcast the Oscars. The first lady appeared with Iger at Washington’s Newseum last June to announce a Disney pledge to tighten the company’s advertising restrictions to comply with benchmarks it created for foods pitched to kids during its programming. The first lady heralded Disney’s decision as “huge” during her speech, and Iger said the decision was “good for the Disney brand and good for our bottom line on a long-term basis.”

Cajoling business to adopt voluntary changes -- with all the kudos and high-fives from America’s most popular Obama -- is just a part of the regulatory, legislative, home-based, school-based, advertising, food manufacturing, and state and local efforts aimed at the same key public health issues, Wootan said.

“The first lady’s attention to obesity is very important and worthwhile,” she told RCP. “I think she’s making an important contribution to the nutrition and fitness movement.”

Along the way, Michelle Obama has embellished her own unique identity as first lady, and her speeches about nutrition and exercise often end with a confident dash into the audience. Her connection with crowds is part of the White House choreography, accompanied by a seven-song playlist created just for her that can extend for 25 minutes, if necessary. Last week, the opening songs were full of hip energy: “Dreams” by Ashanti, and “Everybody Loves a Star” by rapper Doug E Fresh.

On Monday, during an #AskFLOTUS Twitter Q&A session, Mrs. Obama was in full mom mode, answering questions about her personal habits and dispensing consumer tips about rearing and feeding healthy offspring. Tweets written by the first lady carried the initials “-mo,” and she was photographed in front of an Apple laptop (whose corporate logo was masked by a sticker).

A fan asked about Mrs. Obama’s favorite cardio workout. Kickboxing, she replied, because it’s fun and relieves stress. And she noted she’s a morning exerciser: “I’m done before the day gets busy.” A favorite healthy meal in winter? Chili made with turkey or veggies. A recommended exercise a family can share? Summer biking. (Mrs. Obama doesn’t golf, a sport President Obama loves, and apparently he doesn’t ski, so the first lady took their daughters again this year to Colorado during Presidents’ Day weekend to hit the slopes. The Obama family saves the biking for Hawaii.)

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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