Her 23-minute speech, embraced by a receptive female audience at the White House, contributed to the administration's all-out public relations push on health care. President Barack Obama will resume it Sunday with appearances on five morning news shows, followed by a visit Monday to CBS's David Letterman show.
Mrs. Obama focused on the White House's efforts to expand coverage and block insurers' ability to drop customers who get seriously ill. But she stopped well short of the deeply involved, hands-on role played by another first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, nearly two decades ago.
In urging passage of "my husband's plan," Mrs. Obama stuck mainly to the themes and backdrops of more traditional first ladies, including Laura Bush. She hugged three female cancer survivors before taking the stage, and spoke repeatedly from the perspective of a mother and wife who sympathized with less-wealthy women's plights.
"For two years on the campaign trail, this was what I heard from women, that they were being crushed, crushed by the current structure of our health care," the first lady said.
Her Friday speech was part of the White House's strategy of keeping Michelle Obama on a middle path. She walks a line between purely ceremonial events typical of, say, a Pat Nixon, and the hefty policymaking role assumed 16 years ago by Clinton, a fellow Ivy League law school graduate.
Clinton, now the secretary of state, was hailed by feminists for taking the lead in crafting a comprehensive plan to overhaul health care when her husband took office in 1993. Bill Clinton famously said voters were getting "two for the price of one."
Politically, however, the effort failed. "Hillarycare," as detractors called it, was drafted in secret and thrust upon Congress and the public as an all-or-nothing proposition.
Its collapse contributed to Republicans' takeover of Congress in 1994, and Hillary Clinton never again played such a high-profile policyshaping role in her husband's presidency.
Michelle Obama, a former hospital executive, has the brains, experience and charm to play a plausible part in helping her husband craft and sell his health care agenda. But the Obamas absorbed many lessons from the Clintons' earlier travails, and the restrained, selective use of the first lady's appeal is among them.
Some political strategists think they are hitting the mark just fine.
Targeting Mrs. Obama's involvement mainly to women "is effective, because she depoliticizes it for people," said Jennifer Palmieri, a former Clinton administration aide who closely tracks health care issues. The first lady is fully credible as a mother and wife, Palmieri said, and she speaks directly to women who make difficult health care decisions for their families but are sometimes turned off by the fiery politics surrounding the debate.
"She can lift the conversation out of the Congress," Palmieri said.