by Shari MacDonald Strong
The Washington Post, The Politico, and the Huffington Post report that President Obama unleashed First Lady Michelle on federal agencies today in an attempt to drum up support for the new stimulus package, which Republicans are opposing. HuffPo calls her “a major weapon,” but the term feels somewhat inaccurate, as Mrs. Obama has a reputation not for strong-arming potential converts, but for charming them.
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama wowed the crowds with his ideas and, perhaps even more so, with his articulation of them. But Michelle herself won over many undecided voters. “If he has a wife that smart,” I heard people say, over and over again, “he’s got to have good judgment. He obviously surrounds himself with intelligent people.”
Indeed, like Obama’s closest advisers, Mrs. Obama is intelligent – brilliant, even. That’s been obvious from the get-go. As a highly educated and accomplished attorney, career woman, community leader, and campaigner, she’s also clearly demonstrated tremendous strength of personality. For many of us, the question has been: how will she use that strength in her husband’s administration? Or will she use it at all?
When she described in November her intention to put her family first during her time in the White House, some bemoaned what they took as an intentional positioning of Mrs. Obama as a non-political being. Isn’t Michelle a feminist? some asked about the Princeton and Harvard Law School grad. Can’t she be a mom and a political player, too?
Well, obviously she can – and, as demonstrated last week by her participation in events commemorating the signing of the Lily Ledbetter bill , and today by her entry into the stimulus package fray -- she is. Indeed, with her intelligence and insight and strength and professional background, Michelle Obama stands poised to become, perhaps, the most powerful First Lady in U.S. History. Of course, from 1993 to 2001, Hillary Clinton held that honor. But widespread resistance to Clinton’s ideas – or, perhaps more likely, to her presence as a woman – disappointingly limited her influence. Still, if Clinton left 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling of the Presidency, how many more might she have left in the First Lady’s office? Will Michelle Obama face the same nasty criticism and external limitations that Hillary Clinton faced when she flexed her political muscles during Bill Clinton’s administration? Or will a new millennium, and a different personality and approach, provide more chances for the President’s wife to act as a political player?
It would be unfair – and inaccurate -- to accuse Michelle Obama of being disingenuous in positioning herself as “First Mom.” She clearly puts her girls first (e.g., limiting the amount of time she spent on the road during the presidential campaign, planning sleepovers during the campaign, taking steps to ensure her daughters continue to have as normal a life as possible, bringing a puppy into the White House, etc.) and undoubtedly will continue to do so.
But it is also true that such deliberate, overtly maternal assurances are a part of what makes Michelle Obama appear less threatening, at least initially, than Clinton did in the same role. While some pundits and voters painted Clinton (also a mom, but less publicly so) as a sort of power-hungry teen Tracy Flick from Election during the Clinton era, Michelle Obama comes across more like the rare Homecoming Queen who, incredibly (and democratically), befriends everyone in her school. People like Michelle Obama, and they like feeling liked and appreciated by her. And they are. Moms. Military families. All kinds of families. Public servants. She gives us the impression that we are all on her radar, we are all appreciated, and she cares about what we all have to say.
The question is, as she embarks on her Stimulus Bill Tour, will people care what she has to say? Time will tell. But if you ask me? Never bet against a mom.