Devoted, smart and forcefully clear about her role, Michelle Obama could be the most successful first lady in decades
As Washington preps for a transition team, there is one person of whom there is no doubt. Throughout the raucous American election season, Michelle Obama – Barack’s professed “best friend” and “partner” in his journey – has been both completely present, a tireless fighter and campaigner, and yet, at the same time extremely, forcefully clear about the role she wants to play in this administration.
If her campaigning strategy is any indication, we may be in store for one of the most successful first ladies in decades, one who uses this terrible and amazing office to the fullest extent of its abilities, without losing herself in its twisted mores.
She learned her lesson early – after the blow up over her purported anti-Americanism – a twisting of the words that she had never been more “proud” to be an American – Michelle Obama toed the party line. She kept her public face perfect, from her fashion choices (smartly, and quietly, wearing low-dollar off-the-rack frocks for big ticket events, like her appearance on the View and on late night television), to her carefully worded cheerleading for her husband – announcing she would not comment on his choice of vice-president, for example, in a pointed nod to more activist first ladies before her, saying she was actually pleased it wasn’t her place, nor her desire, to be a part of such thing.
As she wrote for the Times today (a piece that originally ran in some form before the outcome of Tuesday’s vote was decided, in US News &World Report), “mom” is the title she holds most dear. In that message to Americans and the rest of the world, this ultra-educated (Princeton, Harvard) careerist, super mom laid the ground work for what her tenure as first lady will look like. She will be the guardian, first and foremost, of her own family. (These are the youngest kids in that stately mansion in decades – Chelsea was a bit older, Amy Carter was eight, but the comparison people will surely make most will be the Kennedy kids).
But woe to those who interpret that to mean she will go quietly into that good night, tucking the kids into bed as Barack handles the matters of state. No. If these early statements are a good indication, she will extrapolate her family guardian role into one that positions her to be a champion for mothers and families across America – and perhaps, at some point, around the world. She’s already made an outreach to military families, noting their struggles, and in so doing she helps smooth over any anxieties military families might have about this anti-war president understanding their needs.
But such a multi-faceted message that seems, at face value, so simple, exposes just how difficult this job really is. Having not yet picked out the drapes for the private quarters, or – much more importantly – decided which school her children will attend upon arrival in Washington (a dicey, potentially politically explosive decision in and of itself given the Clinton’s bashing for sending Chelsea to the tony Sidwell Friends school rather than a DC public school), Michelle Obama is already being criticised – for the dress she wore on election night – and wooed: Vogue, reportedly wants her for the cover. The role of the first lady is an uncomfortable one.
In the post-feminist era, a first lady has come to be expected to be all things to all people – smart and well educated, but also satisfied with her ceremonial position and encouraged not to speak up. Laura Bush pulled the role back to one that was far quieter than her predecessor, Hillary Clinton, even as she gave gravitas to her once-wild husband. But while feminists might have cheered Hillary’s role as adviser, there was always something terribly uncomfortable about her unelected position, a sense of dissatisfaction and condescension that swirled around her from the marriage itself, to her snappish retort that she wouldn’t be a “Tammy Wynette” that was simply standing by her man, or a woman who baked cookies all day.
Back in July Gil Troy, author of, most recently Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents told me: “The problem of the first lady is that there are all these unspoken assumptions and unmarked landmines, and if you start feeling too empowered as a modern voice and deviate from the script, you risk landing on political-cultural landmines.”
You have to go all the way back to Lady Bird Johnson to find a first lady that was happy in her position, who used the office to advance environmentalism for the first time in America, who braved a whistle-stop tour of the roiling, racist southern states alone when her husband feared to. And yet even Lady Bird had to tolerate the infidelities of her husband.
Michelle Obama is the perfect modern hybrid. Smart, beautiful, fiercely devoted to her children and her husband, her very presence adds to the sense of class and dignity this campaign – and this administration – has projected from the outset. And the one quality we hear about her again and again? She’s real. It’s a quality that’s perhaps the most difficult to maintain in this job, and the one that will keep her most sane.