Every time she opens her mouth and lets loose her latest litany of seizure-inducing inanities, the media—dutiful stenographers that they are—respond with Pavlovian immediacy. They hail her as a trailblazer and a model for working mothers everywhere, even as they proceed with their objectifying scrutiny of her every questionable fashion decision. She invites the derision of the political opposition and the praise of the political base, while a majority of the country has largely made up its mind about her. She is over-hyped, over-covered, and over-rated. If only I were talking about Sarah Palin.
Ever since her husband ascended to the presidency, the media has prematurely sought to fit the square-shaped Michelle Obama into the circular hole of Camelot. Still bewitched by the moldering majesty of the Kennedy legacy and always on the lookout for an heir to King John’s throne, every time a young Democratic couple enters the White House, the media assume that Camelot has been reborn. But like Hillary Clinton before her, Mrs. Obama is no Jackie O.
Now, it is traditionally indecorous to criticize the presidential spouse, a memo that appears to have gone unread by His Rotundity Rush Limbaugh, who classily critiqued the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” anti-childhood obesity initiative by pointing out that “Our first lady does not project the image of women that you might see on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.”
Perhaps it is a little crass to lament the tendency of fashionistas across the land to behave as if they were coerced at gunpoint into a compact to swoon over Mrs. Obama’s every outfit, no matter how tawdry or undignified (sleeveless may or may not be trendy—hell if I know—but it is not puritanical to value decorum). And perhaps it is a little crass to bemoan such national embarrassments as the scuttled attempt to fund Mrs. Obama’s pet project by cutting food stamp funding or her preposterous assertion that obesity is a matter of national security (if obesity is a national security issue, then quite literally anything can be a national security issue). Perhaps it is a little crass to engage in ad hominem attacks against someone whose only crime was to marry a future president. But was that really Mrs. Obama’s only crime?
Shorn of a real job since her husband’s election but eager to maintain the guise of productivity, Obama has busied herself with her “Let’s Move” initiative. Perhaps it can be forgiven that every First Lady arrives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with the expectation that she is to jettison any erstwhile frumpiness in order to fulfill her new role as the nation’s flagship fashion icon while fruitlessly championing some innocuous initiative. The fulfillment of this expectation is little more than a public nuisance. But when the First Lady begins to dabble in legislative activism, it contributes to a more nefarious phenomenon—the institutionalization of the Office of the First Lady as a power center in American government.
There is an especially strong tradition of powerful Democratic first ladies beginning with Edith Wilson, who literally ran the country after her husband suffered a stroke, that continues on through Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosalynn Carter—who infamously attended Cabinet meetings—and Mrs. Clinton, whose misadventures as co-president needn’t any elaboration. Part of the problem is the fact that there exists an Office of the First Lady of the United States, formally established under Mrs. Carter. Given her unelected status, it is inexplicable that the president’s wife needs her own press secretary, her own chief of staff, or her own staff at all, let alone an agenda for them to implement.
While the First Lady wields no formally-mandated power, the institutionalization of her office confers upon her a degree of influence that no unelected or unappointed citizen ought to have. A candidate’s spouse does not “run” for First Lady. In fact, we are frequently urged to keep a presidential candidate’s family off limits and collectively tut whenever anyone is so boorish as to violate this unwritten compact. But as daffy as Palin and Limbaugh’s assertions of the nanny-statism behind Mrs. Obama’s exhortations on healthier lifestyle choices are, if the First Lady is to play a formal role in the governing of this country—even a comparatively frivolous one—then it is more than a little disingenuous of her to cower under any kind of apolitical aegis.
Dhruv K. Singhal ’12, a former associate editorial editor, is a English concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.