Monday 21 May 2018

Madam President? What next for Michelle Obama...

She insists she's not interested in politics, but after a stunning speech at the Democrat convention, Michelle Obama is in the spotlight again. What next for FLOTUS? Marion McKeone reports from Washington

Wrapping up: First Lady Michelle Obama acknowledges the crowd after delivering her speech at the Democratic National Convention on Monday
Wrapping up: First Lady Michelle Obama acknowledges the crowd after delivering her speech at the Democratic National Convention on Monday

It was supposed to be Bernie Sanders' night. The 74-year-old Vermont senator and self-styled leader of a 'revolution' among Democrats had been given the primetime TV slot. He was expected to throw his weight behind the Clinton candidacy and urge his fiercely loyal 'Bernie or Bust' supporters to do likewise.

But at these events, thunder can be stolen by unlikely sources. Back in 2004, the Democrats hosted an excruciatingly dull convention to nominate John Kerry, an excruciatingly dull and pompous candidate. In a little-heralded slot, a hitherto unknown young senator stole not just the evening, but also the entire show with a display of dazzling charisma, vision and eloquence.

At the time, this reporter suggested that not only was Barack Obama the future of the Democratic Party, he would become its next Democratic president. At the height of the swaggering, 'with us or agin' us' Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis, this prediction may have seemed improbable - not to say ridiculous. But in less than four years, the Bush-Cheney era would be swept aside by a 46-year-old black community activist and rookie senator who had voted against the war in Iraq.

Fast-forward 12 years to another Democratic conference, and the opening night, if not the entire show, is stolen by his wife. First Lady Michelle Obama gave an electrifying speech endorsing a polarising former first lady who, like Barack Obama, will make history should her bid for the White House succeed.

But whatever the outcome in November, Michelle Obama on Monday night reminded the world that she is, in her own right, a force to be reckoned with.

This was abundantly clear back in the heady election campaign days of 2008. By any standards, the Obamas were an astonishingly gifted couple - articulate, attractive, inspiring with a soaring vision of America fuelled by their own ability to overcome the considerable obstacles life had set them.

Back then,Michelle Obama was also extraordinarily accessible. I recall several informal chats outside grimy public toilets on campaign trail pit stops. While there was an iron curtain between journalists and other candidates on both the primary campaign and the election campaign proper, she was more than happy to grab a sandwich and a coffee with journalists. And on more than one occasion she displayed a mischievous side, making wickedly funny comments about her husband in particular, and the campaign circus in general. She was smart, funny, often acerbic and refreshingly down to earth.

And while she was fully on board the Obama bus, there was little doubt that she was a reluctant conscript. She was sacrificing a career that she had fought hard for and a family and community life that was built around her daughters, then aged just six and nine.

You couldn't help but wonder how this force of nature could be contained in the White House goldfish bowl. It seemed that even more than Hillary Clinton, this fiercely smart, independent-minded career woman and lawyer would chafe inside the designer straitjacket that first ladies don on Inauguration Day. Only Hillary Clinton before her had tried to break out of the traditional 'wife, mother and hostess' role and she had paid a heavy price for her temerity in attempting to introduce a universal health care system.

From the outset, Michelle Obama made it clear that she would accept the supporting role. She gave up her high-profile job and the woman who had been Barack Obama's boss when they were both promising young lawyers, would accept the traditionally subservient role. With a twist.

While she stayed away from the Cabinet and the Oval Office, she forged a path as an advocate of poverty awareness.

A reluctant fashion icon, she put much of her energy into leading by example as an advocate for healthy living, with a particular focus on children's diets and the need for exercise.

An organic vegetable garden in the White House was followed by a book on healthy eating and her 'Let's Move!' campaign targeting childhood obesity.

She made regular high-profile appearances at healthy lifestyle events, particularly in underprivileged neighbourhoods.

Although not as safe as Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No to Drugs' or Laura Bush's distinctly uncontroversial focus on children's reading, she rarely ruffled feathers.

But she had her critics, many of them women who felt she could more usefully use her time as First Lady by embracing more controversial aspects of the cultural wars that were dividing America. She also drew a sharp rebuke from Trump surrogate Chris Christie - hardly a model for a healthy lifestyle - who fulminated during his own unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination that when he became president "kids can eat whatever the hell they want".

In many ways Michelle Obama's heartfelt speech was a continuum of the role she has played for the past eight years - as an exemplary role model for children and parents, an advocate for poverty awareness.

But you can't help wonder if she's chomping at the bit and whether post-White House, just like Hillary Clinton, she will truly come into her own.

The speech was especially poignant given her own upbringing. She, her brother and her parents shared a tiny apartment in one of Chicago's toughest South Side neighbourhoods. There were bars on the windows and the soundtrack to her early years was gunshots and police sirens.

Her father, a sanitation worker, developed multiple sclerosis, plunging the family further into poverty, and died in 1991. Yet astonishingly, both she and her brother, who made a three-hour trip to a school for gifted students each day, graduated top of their classes from Princeton, one of the most exclusive of the Ivy League colleges in the United States.

From there she went to Harvard and joined the prestigious Sidley Austin law firm on graduation.

She became Barack Obama's mentor and boss when he subsequently joined the firm but soon afterwards then went into public service, becoming executive director of the Chicago office of Public Allies, before being appointed vice president of Community and External Affairs at University of Chicago Hospitals, a prestigious post that netted her a salary of almost $250,000 a year. She resigned her position when her husband was elected president.

It is to her credit that during eight years in her role as the most scrutinised first lady in history, she has rarely, if ever, put a foot wrong, while seeming authentic and entirely her own person.

The fact that she and Hillary Clinton have had a fractious relationship over the years makes it all the more ironic that as former Obama campaign manager David Axelrod noted, Michelle Obama succeeded in making the case for Hillary Clinton in a way no one else has succeeded in doing.

After a week of ugliness and invective in Cleveland, her message seemed all the more resounding.

While she never mentioned Trump by name, her condemnation of the "hateful language" we hear on TV was blunt and uncompromising. "Our motto is, when they go low, we go high," she said.

"Don't let anyone tell you that this country isn't great. This right now is the greatest country on earth," the first lady said.

In an inspired move, she cast the presidential race as one where voters would choose between a positive role model for children in Hillary, or a devastating one, in Donald Trump. The case she laid out against his election was the most authentic thus far in the campaign. As an advocate for Hillary Clinton, she has proven thus far peerless.

So what next for Michelle Obama? There is little doubt that she will become a visible force on the campaign trail. There is also little doubt that when she leaves the White House in January, still a young woman, the world is her oyster.

A Cabinet position in a Clinton administration is by no means out of the question. Nor is a high-profile international advocacy role on children's issues, women's issues or global poverty and inequality.

Already of course, the talk is that she will emulate Hillary Clinton and follow her husband into elected politics, and possibly lead him back to the White House.

The latter seems fanciful - it's an open secret that she's chomping at the bit to resume her life and career free of the relentless scrutiny she has endured for the past eight years.

However, as we have seen once again with this tumultuous campaign, in American politics, anything can happen.

In her own words: The First Lady in quotes

On being brainy: "I loved getting As… I thought being smart is cooler than anything in the world".

On success: "Success is only meaningful and enjoyable if it feels like your own".

On young people: "A lot of young people think they're invincible, but the truth is young people are knuckleheads".

On marriage: "Marriage is hard work… even if you're married to your soulmate".

On motherhood: "My most important title is still 'mom-in-chief'. My daughters are still the heart of my heart and the centre of my world".

On race: "As a black man, Barack can get shot going to the gas station".

On health: "We can't lie around on the couch eating French fries and candy bars and expect our kids to eat carrots and run around the block".

Irish Independent

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life