In the midst of the heated debates and political tumult that accompany any presidential campaign, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture and focus solely on the role of the president. Other political figures tend to temporarily fall by the wayside, overlooked by the public eye. The first lady is often one of them.
Although first ladies have always endured intense scrutiny and personal insults, the racial contempt for the Obamas, combined with the rise of social media, has led to unprecedented levels of hatred and criticism directed at the president’s wife.
However, Michelle Obama has done far more than patiently tolerate ridicule and bigotry. She is an advocate for poverty awareness, nutrition and girls’ education, not to mention a successful former lawyer. She is a first-generation college graduate with degrees from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She is a mother of two daughters. Her legacy, however, extends far beyond her impressive resume of volunteer work and advanced degrees: she has not only served as the first African-American woman in the White House–an impressive feat in itself–but has recreated the role of the first lady.
Michelle Obama, in fact, was hesitant to accept the role of the wife of a politician. When she took part in Barack Obama’s 2000 campaign for the House of Representatives, her then-boss asked if there was anything she enjoyed about campaigning for her husband; after a long pause, she replied that visiting so many living rooms had given her some new decorating ideas (Financial Wealth Magazine, “Michelle Obama,” 02.16.2016).
When Michelle Obama finally did embrace her role in the political sphere, she did not simply accept the narrowly defined position designated for the wives of politicians. Rather, she continued to work toward her own goals and emphasize her own values, utilizing her influential position to her advantage.
Toward the beginning of her husband’s presidency, the First Lady visited homeless shelters and soup kitchens, and promoted bills that supported President Obama’s policy priorities. She held a White House reception for women’s rights advocates in honor of the enactment of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and visited United States Cabinet-level agencies (Financial Wealth Magazine). Although she was frequently criticized for her extensive political involvement, she only became more deeply immersed in what many deemed to be her husband’s sphere over the next several years.
As Barack Obama’s presidency progressed, the First Lady began to create her own legacy separate from her husband’s, becoming a national icon in her own right. In 2010, she started the Let’s Move! Campaign, seeking to encourage a healthy lifestyle and decrease childhood obesity. In 2011, Michelle Obama and Second Lady Jill Biden launched Joining Forces, an organization which aids service members, veterans and their families. In 2014, the First Lady founded Reach Higher, an initiative to help young people plan their future and further their education.
At the same time, Michelle Obama has never distanced herself from either her family or from her role in her husband’s career. While she continually strives to protect her family and their privacy, she has always been open and honest about the imperfections that exist in any family.
Maureen Dowd once criticized Michelle Obama for humanizing her husband, cynically stating, “If all…Obama is peddling is the Camelot mystique, why debunk this mystique?” (The New York Times, “She’s Not Buttering Him Up,” 04.25.2007). Although the current First Lady was frequently scorned by the press for treating her husband like an ordinary person, she staunchly continued to actively reframe the public’s view of the president. Arguably the first first lady of the social media age, Michelle Obama has dealt with the increasingly public nature of her role seamlessly. She plays a crucial role in the presentation of the First Family to the American public and she has taken advantage of this duty, portraying an honest, unglorified depiction of the Obamas.
Perhaps in part because of her emphasis on family, liberal critics often accuse Michelle Obama of not being “feminist” enough. Linda Hirshman once described her as “the English lady of the manor, Tory Party, circa 1830s” (Politico, “Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama became a feminist nightmare,” 11.21.2013).
Many of the causes that the First Lady focuses on fall under the category of appropriately “feminine” topics. She has been lauded for her attention to health and nutrition, and her care for veterans. However, her involvement in these issues goes beyond that which is typical of first ladies. She not only participates in charities and organizations that fight for these causes, but starts her own. Rather than passively supporting issues which have already gained significant support, she brings up topics that the U.S. rarely addresses in other capacities.
She is not often associated with “feminist” causes, although this reveals not a lack of action on her part, but the tendency of the press to underplay her activism. She has held a crucial role in advocating equal education opportunities for girls around the world, especially through her participation in the “Let Girls Learn” initiative, a “government-wide effort that will leverage the investments we have made…in global primary school and expand them to help adolescent girls complete their education” (thewhitehouse.gov, “Let Girls Learn”). She has also been vocal about the difficulty for women of balancing a career and family, which she herself has handled beautifully.
Hillary Clinton, who focused on many of the same causes, is often lauded as a revolutionary first lady, and in some ways, she certainly was. She was the only first lady up until that point to hold a postgraduate degree, and to have had a professional career prior to entering the White House. She advocated for health care reform, and initiated the Adoption and Safe Families Act. She focused on preventing violence against women and sought to increase research funding for children’s health issues.
Whereas Michelle Obama, however, strived from the beginning to construct her own identity and fight for her own causes, “Hillary started…from a place of entitlement, as though if she reads her resume long enough people will surrender” (The New York Times, “When Hillary Clinton Killed Feminism,” 02.13.2016). While she fulfilled the prescribed role of first lady far more successfully than any of her predecessors, she did not step outside that role during her time in the White House. Whereas the current First Lady carries a “we” message, Hillary has an “I” message, which is where her legacy stops short of Michelle Obama’s (The New York Times).
Undoubtedly, Michelle Obama’s influence and leadership will extend far beyond the White House.
The role of the United States president’s spouse certainly should not be determined by their husband or wife’s political position. Nevertheless, the changes which Michelle Obama has initiated cannot be ignored and the issues that she has continually addressed during her time in the White House should continue to be at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Maureen Dowd is undoubtedly not the only one to “wince a bit when Michelle Obama chides her husband as a mere mortal” (The New York Times). However, this is a sign that the First Lady has succeeded: she has prompted the public to question the “presumption that we see him as a god,” and has resolutely continued to humanize the United States President, bringing politicians down to the level of “mere mortals” (The New York Times). As the election approaches, we need to consider that the White House is losing not one remarkable leader, but two.