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A campus – and a whole town – await the first lady

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But it will be a moment for Mrs. Obama, too, and not just because this will be her first national public address. While first ladies’ commencement speeches aren’t typically headline-grabbing events, this one may overturn that precedent. Obama is more popular than ever – a recent Gallup poll gave her a 79 percent approval rating, compared with 65 percent for her husband – something of a feat considering how recently she was stirring public unease. During last year’s election campaign, she was viewed by many with misgiving and her patriotism was often questioned, especially after she said it was the “first time” in her adult life she was proud of America.

The excitement in Merced reflects the broad appeal the first lady has achieved since her husband was elected president. Merced is not exactly a bastion of liberalism. While the county went for Obama in last fall’s presidential vote, it sided with George W. Bush in the previous two elections.

The rise in the first lady’s popularity, says Myra Gutin, a first lady historian and professor of communications at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., is in part because Obama’s advisers have done a skillful job of shaping her image and keeping her away from anything controversial. “She and the president have shown very much that they are of the people. She’s going out in the community in Washington, she planted the vegetable garden, and all those things have a cumulative effect,” says Ms. Gutin.

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