Amid all the speculation about Barack Obama’s newfound mojo, a hotly anticipated stiffening of his political spine inspired by his decisive victory in November, a somewhat more intriguing question has scarcely been asked.
Will Michelle finally step out?
The Harvard-trained attorney has always been, for those on the right, a more threatening character than her husband. After all, Barack Obama merely received that famous fist bump—or as Fox News had it, “terrorist fist jab”—in the moments before delivering his speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention; Michelle initiated it. It was she who revealed that the future president woke up “snore-y and stinky” in the morning, part of the campaign’s aggressive bid to humanize him that had the side effect of further elevating her. (After all, if America’s demigod wakes up less than perfect, what would she think of us?) And it was Michelle who included a line about how the nation is “just downright mean” and “guided by fear”—in her 2008 stump speech—and once notoriously allowed that she was “for the first time in my adult lifetime … really proud of my country.” And, of course, it was Michelle who finally extended the right to “bare arms” to political spouses and, as The New York Times Style section put it, “spurred an epidemic of sleevelessness.”
My goodness, the guns on that woman!
Whether the infamous “whitey” video—a Holy Grail of the right, in which Michelle is said to employ the dated epithet—ever existed at all outside the fever dreams of dirty trickster Roger Stone Jr. (which it almost definitely did not), the first lady has worked hard to dispel our fears. Over the last four years, the perceived Angela Davis-style radical has been replaced by a smoothly competent political professional, whose causes seem more Lady Bird Johnson than Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Not that there haven’t been a few missteps: wearing Lanvin sneakers to a food bank, eating Shake Shack (albeit in moderation) despite her healthy-food exhortations and hugging Queen Elizabeth. In general, though, Michelle Obama has been a notably careful FLOTUS, campaigning for exercise (what could be less controversial than that?) and embodying the role of wholesome mom in chief. Far from reinventing the job of first lady, the first black woman to set up house in the East Wing has turned out to be something of a traditionalist. At least so far. Now, with the exigencies of a second presidential campaign behind her, some are hoping Obama will finally let her freak flag—whatever that might look like—fly.
“There’s this sense that the real Michelle Obama, this endearingly frank woman we met in the spring of 2008, is going to come back to the fore,” noted New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor. “I think any change in her during the presidency is going to be one of degree. The real change is going to be in the post-presidency. Once she’s out of the White House and her husband will no longer hold office, she truly will be liberated. She will still be a young woman, and she’ll be one of the most famous and influential women in the world.”
“For first ladies, I do think second terms tend to be a bit more interesting,” said Daily Beast fashion writer Robin Givhan, whose beat is the intersection of style and politics, and who has often written about Michelle. “It was in the second term when Laura Bush spoke out about Burma. So I will be intrigued to see if Mrs. Obama decides that she’s going to add a third leg to her platform, which now is divided between the support of military personnel and the Let’s Move campaign.”
While Givhan declined to speculate as to what that third project might be, conservatives are plainly terrified. As a piece on Right Side News ominously put it, “Much like Hillary, she will be assigned more involvement in affairs of state, appointed to committees, and public appearances of a political nature will become more frequent, not to speak of a barrage of friendly television repartee on shows like The View, late-night talk and more. In essence, the grooming will begin.”
Blame Clinton for the lofty expectations: The former first lady-turned-well-liked senator-turned-presidential candidate-turned-secretary of state-turned-beloved Internet meme is the new paradigm for first ladies. (Even Laura Bush, the very picture of a traditional political spouse, went on an extensive book tour in 2010, during which she spoke out on her policy differences from her husband. Turns out she’s pro-gay marriage and supports Roe v. Wade!)
Obama, in spite of her rather rocky introduction, has the skill set of a politician, as she amply demonstrated with her 2012 Democratic National Convention speech, in which she passionately recounted the story of her early marriage and her dad’s health struggles, making Ann Romney’s tuna-salad recollections look hopelessly drab and out of touch.
Although Obama was hardly the first first lady to get an advanced degree or work outside the home—Laura Bush has a master’s and was a teacher and librarian, and Nancy Davis acted in films after her marriage to Ronald Reagan—she was the first one to have a higher-profile career than her husband for a time. While Barack Obama was working on his memoir and commuting between Chicago and Springfield as a state senator, Michelle was climbing the ladder at the University of Chicago Hospitals system; even when he became a U.S. senator, she was the spouse bringing home the real bacon.
It’s not surprising that with Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk up for re-election in 2016, speculation has already emerged that Michelle will make a run at the seat. A recent poll had her trouncing the Republican 51 to 40 percent. Trouble is, the first lady may not be interested.
In her book The Obamas (Little, Brown & Co., 2012), Kantor reported that Michelle strongly considered the idea of remaining in Chicago and letting her husband turn the White House into a bachelor pad in order to allow little Sasha and Malia to continue their school year in Chicago. “It’s hard to overstate how little she wanted to go into politics,” Kantor told The Observer, “and it wasn’t just because of the family reasons she sometimes cites. She had a real objection to the nature of politics. She thought it wasn’t the right way to create social change.”
She’s disappointed liberals before. Many expected her to advocate strongly for progressive causes during her husband’s first term, but she largely kept quiet. Historian Betty Boyd Caroli, author of America’s First Ladies (Oxford University Press, 2010), said she had expected Obama to more aggressively champion the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, for instance. “I was disappointed,” Caroli said. “I expected her to be Superwoman. But it doesn’t work that way. Enough voters, it is feared, are not ready.”
And blame Hillary Clinton for that, too, having so disastrously overreached with health-care reform. “Everybody learned a lesson from that. It’s not good to be too political as a first lady,” Caroli said. (The PR disaster was compounded by Clinton’s maelstrom of press over everything from Whitewater to her ever-evolving hairdo, and the fact that her ambitions for a time outpaced her political talent.)
The result: Clinton entered the East Wing as a full-throated political player and left as a Vogue cover girl and hostess.
“Hillary’s trajectory was the opposite of Michelle’s,” said Rebecca Traister, the author of Big Girls Don’t Cry (Free Press, 2010), a book about women and the 2008 election.
As for Michelle, the conservative blogosphere still lights up with outrage whenever the healthy-eating crusader is seen nibbling a french fry, but the first lady’s childhood-obesity-prevention campaign Let’s Move and her advocacy on behalf of military families are not exactly Hillarycare. Said Kantor: “There’s the question with Let’s Move about how aggressive and confrontational she was willing to be when it came to taking on corporate interests. With the military families initiative, is it rah-rah patriotic, or does it get into darker material? I’m curious to see how complete and thorough a conversation she wants to have with the country about the issues veterans face.”
In the first term, Obama’s “mom in chief” moniker, derided by the left, allowed her to occupy an apolitical space. “There was some frustration among women, thinking she should do more,” said Anita McBride, former chief of staff to Laura Bush and a scholar of the history of first ladies. “But the women’s movement is about choice, and this was her choice.”
Others agree that Obama’s old-school approach during the first term was in itself somewhat radical. “I consider myself a feminist,” said MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry. “But I’m also a critic of second-wave feminism, which was bourgeois, white middle class, and said that work done outside the home is the most liberating kind of work. That ignores the fact that through vast periods of U.S. history, black women were not provided the income or space that they could make that decision. I find it kind of subversive and interesting that a black woman with a law degree from Harvard who’d been the primary breadwinner through college said, ‘I’m going to do what generations of white women have done, do the Junior League kind of work.’”
But even Harris-Perry sees an untapped political potential in the first lady. She cited Obama’s work negotiating between the University of Chicago and the city’s South Side: “It’d be really interesting to see if she could navigate that at a higher level—bridging this gap between the powerful and well-resourced, and those that are being denigrated.”
Besides, a certain distaste for politics might just turn out to be an asset, creating a sense that, should she venture into the arena, she would be doing it not because she wants to—heaven forbid—but because her country truly needs her. A “Michelle Obama 2016” T-shirt with a snazzy stars-and-bars design can be found for about $25 on Google Shopping.
Traister compared Michelle to another formerly nonpolitical person who ended up taking out a sitting Republican senator. “Elizabeth Warren is somebody who did not have a political career, who was tremendously influential in terms of how we see the chasm between rich and poor,” Traister noted. Obama, she said, “could get very active in immigration reform; she could start talking about climate change.”
Harris-Perry had a different role model in mind—a first lady who, as “a dutiful soldier,” kept silent about her disagreements with her husband during his presidency but campaigned vociferously as a conscience of the Democratic party in the years that followed: Eleanor Roosevelt. “She became the legacy; she held the Democrats’ feet to the fire. She was very active in party leadership,” Harris-Perry said, adding that Obama “might be able to be a kind of queen-maker for women running for office. I could see her on the campaign trail.”
“It’s very natural for that to be the next-step fantasy for people who appreciate her brilliance—oh, she’ll run for office!” Traister said. “One thing all those who want her to run could think about is other jobs she may want to have in her life, using her own model of working within communities. What we need to be aware of is not letting her identity as a former first lady hold her back from having an independent life.”
Then again, you never know. Back in the 1990s, Caroli predicted that Hillary Clinton would never run for office: “She didn’t look at ease with groups of people,” Caroli said. “But people change!”
And if they don’t, there’s always Sasha and Malia. 2040, perhaps?