While the mixed assessments of President Barack Obama’s first hundred days pour in, Michelle Obama has maintained a near-flawless record of behavior and pushed campaign questions about her equanimity into obscurity. In the process, she has managed to accomplish The First Lady Ideal: pleasing most of the people most of the time. She has done this through a media-savvy combination: her actions remain reassuringly conventional while she personifies the Obama message of hope and change.
Most Americans prefer a First Lady who is one generation behind in terms of women’s roles. Mrs. Obama’s occupations thus far have been family, food, clothing–three non-controversial topics we historically associate with women. She promised to be Mom-in-Chief, and she’s made good on that. She’s put up a swing set, gotten a puppy, dug a garden so her children will eat better, and returned early from Europe in order to be with their daughters. Her official website focuses on family from the very first sentence and gives no clue to causes–unlike Jill Biden’s, which mentions her children only after all of her professional accomplishments. Magazine covers feature Mrs. Obama with family members, and she gives due credit to her mother and mother-in-law. Photos of the smiling, physically linked First Couple continue to roll out of the White House. She is his balance: “I do hugs” vs. No Drama Obama. Extrovert vs. Introvert. Family vs. Policy.
If her topics have been traditional, her fashion sense has not. This matters to the couture industry, to fashion-savvy Americans, to African-American women whose blogs are full of compliments, but it matters most to the Obama administration because her appearances–even when she says nothing–are still excellent media events. The comparisons to Jacqueline Kennedy are germane in that, like Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Obama is young, beautiful, photogenic, charming, and accomplished. Both women’s clothing styles represented a radical break from their predecessors’ (Mrs. Bush dressed like Mrs. Eisenhower: middle age, staid, and conservative by their era’s standards) and that difference is electrifying.
Fashion has long been associated with the First Lady, and (appropriate) eye-catching sartorial selections make for good publicity. In her dramatic, colorful choices, Mrs. Obama embodies hope and change. No First Lady escapes censure. Martha Washington and Mary Todd Lincoln suffered horribly from criticism about their clothes. But when First Ladies get it right and it’s kind of different, like Jacqueline Kennedy and like Michelle Obama, it’s fascinating. Through this very traditional topic of attire Mrs. Obama seems progressive and new.
Of course clothing is not her cause. When she has stepped into the public sphere, to meet with governmental agencies or world leaders, Michelle Obama has not launched policy initiatives of her own. Even her message to British schoolgirls was non-controversial and all-American: hard work and strong values guarantee success.
Many Americans are waiting for this smart, professional, career woman to launch her cause–but doing so in the first hundred days might have backfired for President Obama’s legislative agenda. Whatever the First Lady eventually champions will have detractors, so perhaps she is waiting until a more propitious time in his administration. Or maybe she really meant it when she said that the children would be her focus, and her not having launched a cause to great fanfare then means she’s kept her promise to be Mom-in-Chief.
Yet her unheralded assistance to African Americans and other people of color is truly new. She catapulted Jason Wu and Maria Pinto to fame. She could have spoken in any school in London, but she picked one with an audience of ethnic minority students. She could have given a long interview to Barbara Walters, but she chose Oprah Winfrey. The First Lady is on the cover of Essence, Oprah, Jet—a tremendous boon to historically black media. Eleanor Roosevelt was the last First Lady to take up the cause of African Americans publicly and with real commitment, as she did the causes of youth and women.
Michelle Obama remains–so the public seems to feel–at once open, approachable, down-to-earth, and a rock star. A good wife, mother, daughter, and daughter-in-law and a First Lady who can hug the Queen. That’s a heady combination for Americans. After one hundred successful days in which she’s won goodwill at home and abroad, it would be appropriate for her to use her station and her celebrity to make a real difference in the cause of her choice.
No First Lady ever gets it right. She’s too reticent or too forward, in his shadow or overshadowing him, putting family first or not putting family first: everything she does is grounds for criticism. Mrs. Obama will reap her share of it when she announces her cause. If she does not advocate a cause, she will also be lambasted. But one hundred days in, she’s made a propitious start.
Stacy A. Cordery
Stacy Cordery, Professor of History, Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois, is the author of Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker and a forthcoming biography of Juliette Gordon Low.
Republished with permission from the History News Network.