Michelle Obama: A new woman in the White House
President Obama's wife Michelle has come out fighting against charges that she is meddlesome. But she is changing what it means to be First Lady.
First Lady. The clue is in the title: the wife of the President of the United States is expected, above all, to be a “lady”, a term that for many Americans is rooted in a vision of the 1950s where mom stayed home and cooked, and dad brought home the bacon.
Like others before her, Michelle Obama – who I am sure is a fine homemaker in her own way and perhaps a good cook, too – has fallen victim to First Lady Syndrome. A new, unauthorised biography of the Obamas by a New York Times reporter describes her as an “unrecognised force” in the White House, who has interfered in her husband’s administration as a way of venting her frustration at the passive role she is expected to perform.
In response to the book, Mrs Obama has given a television interview to CBS News in which she dismissed the allegations, insisted she loved the job and said she was being caricatured as “some kind of angry black woman”. So it’s not just First Lady Syndrome that’s a problem for her but that other old scourge, too: Fear of Black Women. Afflicted by both, what in the world is the poor woman to do but defend herself?
The earliest First Lady I can remember was Mamie Eisenhower, but all I recall of her is a fringe, some pearls around her throat, a ballgown and a big smile. Then came Jackie Kennedy, a silent witness until her televised tour of the White House, when she revealed a Marilyn Monroe purr and a formidable eye for design.
Successive First Ladies did good works, in the manner of women who marry into the Royal family. Pat Nixon was silent; Rosalynn Carter spoke a little; Nancy Reagan was the glamorous prototype for Tom Wolfe’s “social X-ray”; Mrs Bush the First was direct and forceful. Strong women all of them, but not really mould-breakers.
It was Hillary Clinton, the first “baby boomer” to become First Lady and an ambitious product of Yale Law School, who set the alarm bells ringing. The culture warriors declared war and battle was engaged. Laura Bush briefly rekindled the old, gentle tradition; and now we have Michelle Obama.
She, like me, hails from the South Side of Chicago, a part of town where the talk is blunt and forthright. If you come from there, you tell it like it is. In addition, Michelle is a Harvard Law School graduate who made more money as a lawyer, at one time, than her husband; she is also a dark-skinned, big-boned lady with opinions.
I have not read the new book, but it seems to be the kind of “insider” tome, culled from personal observation, anecdote and hearsay, that Americans love to read about their celebrities, particularly the First Family. In the gossip-hungry Beltway culture of Washington DC, any information about a deeply private couple like the Obamas is news. They are, notoriously, not social, in the sense that there was some complaining in the early days that they did not do the Washington circuit, preferring to spend time with their friends from Chicago and making the occasional visit to New York.
I wrote a book about Obama three years ago and found then that the President is private and a loner, while the First Lady is ferociously focused, a loving “tiger mother”, and a fierce promoter of those she loves and believes in. To read others speculating about her inner life and the relationship she has with her husband must be deeply frustrating to her.
In becoming First Lady, she has had to quash some of her personality: the go-getting, driven lawyer/administrator has had to fit a template that would keep Middle American conservatives off her back. This has to be a daily struggle for her. Her devotion to service families, to getting young people to eat properly, her exhortation to young girls in Britain on her visit in 2009 that their destiny did not depend on whether they were born on a country estate or an inner-city estate – all of this can be wiped away by one slip of the tongue, one look, one couture dress too many.
She will have felt she had to do the CBS interview – with a black female journalist – to set the record straight, not only for her daughters’ sake, but for all of those girls and women who look up to her.
Back in 2008, before her husband was elected, she was quoted as saying that “America is a down-right mean country”, a remark that, taken out of context, allowed some commentators to build on the narrative of “the angry black woman”. Profiled in the New Yorker, she was depicted on the cover as a black panther. It was meant to illustrate a serious point about fears of a black president, but instead some people took it literally, and she had no choice but to retreat to tending the organic cabbage patch and looking good in ball gowns.
Michelle has worn the American fashion expected of her. She has appeared on women’s programmes like The View; she has hosted cultural evenings at the White House, even donated her favourite recipes to magazines. She no longer makes public pronouncements outside of her chosen causes.
All of that is gold-plate First Lady stuff. But she also has to run her office in the manner of the executive that she was – sharp, precise and no-nonsense. She has stated that her job is to enhance the Obama presidency and its legacy. She knows that he is part of history for ever. If it is true, as the new biography suggests, that she found her “voice” in London in a school filled with little girls like the child she once was, it is understandable. She is them. There has been no First Lady quite like her before.
Americans are the most divided generationally that they’ve been since the 1960s. If you are under 65, you live in another America, one more diverse, one more accepting of non-traditional roles, more relaxed about non-traditional stances. The three Gs that animate an older America, God, guns and gays, are not the issues that affect those in Michelle Obama’s generation. Born in 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society launch – the most important year for African Americans since 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation – Mrs Obama is part of the new day. She knows that Fear of Black Women stalks her. But she will not be deterred.
Those women, across the political spectrum, who worry now about whether there will ever be a woman president can take heart in having Michelle Obama in the East Wing. The heat that she is taking is a kind of clarification, a rectification. Through her, America is asking itself what the role of the spouse of the president – male or female – should be in the 21st century, when the nation’s influence will be more first among equals than chief executive to the world.
In the meantime, like all good Southsiders, Michelle Obama is simply setting the record straight. That’s what we Southsiders do. We really don’t care a fig about the opinions of those we do not personally know. “Tell it like it is” is a Southside expression , and she will be doing more of this, now that she can see that the lid has been taken off, the game is afoot.
In the President’s second term, she will set her own pace in her own way, and lay a marker for anyone who follows her. She is a game-changer and she knows it. Get ready for the “get down”. Another Southside expression.