As Barack Obama’s popularity has plummeted over the past four years, First Lady Michelle Obama has become one of the most influential figures in America. Her rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention on Sept. 4 revealed just how powerful a first lady can be.
While President Obama’s campaign has benefited from his wife’s presence, she had to halt her own promising career for his. This is almost universally common among the wives of national leaders, even though most spouses are highly educated and have successful careers of their own.
Obama, educated at Princeton and Harvard, worked for former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley before serving as associate dean of student services at the University of Chicago.
Both Obama and former first lady Hillary Clinton were lawyers prior to their husbands taking office and left their careers to support their husbands. Though Clinton has now successfully rebooted her career, serving in the Senate before being appointed President Obama’s Secretary of State, she was set back eight years while her husband was in office. As an intelligent and ambitious woman, her talent was wasted as she stood in the shadow of her husband.
Many Americans questioned Clinton’s prominent role in her husband Bill’s presidency, including her advocacy of extensive health care reform, which eventually failed. She was in the public so much it seemed difficult to hear her husband and many voters felt betrayed.
It is a mark of how rare it is for first ladies to continue working that French President François Hollande’s domestic partner made international headlines when she decided to continue working. Hollande swept into power earlier in 2012, the first Socialist president since François Mitterrand left office in 1995, and his partner, Valérie Trierweiler, caused almost as much of a sensation when she decided to continue working as a journalist, even during the campaign; she moved into arts and culture reporting rather than political coverage to mitigate the conflict of interest.
First lady is not a formal position, as she is given no salary and has no specific job description. Even so, in the States they are given an office and a staff, and there are many demands related to the role. Throughout the history of the United States first ladies have wielded varying degrees of power, but this power is more often behind the scenes or of a less political nature than their husbands’.
Obama received standing ovations and cheers throughout her convention speech though she did not address policy or discuss her husband’s platform. She spoke instead of her husband’s values and portrayed him as a loving father and husband who cares deeply about American families. The personal message lent a new perspective to the president, who at times comes across as distant and academic.
As in nearly all of her campaign speeches, Obama shared the story of her upbringing and her husband’s in order to relate with the everyday American. The empathetic message was clear: Americans can place their trust in a leader who has been through what they have because he understands their needs.
Near the end of the speech, Obama referred to herself as “mom-in-chief” and said being a mother was her most important role. Over the past four years, she has sought to portray this caring mom image above all others. Most famously, her hugs have projected an image of her as a loving leader, but she has also taken on many family-oriented projects, such as veterans’ issues, organic gardening, childhood obesity and women’s health.
In the beginning of the 2008 presidential race, Obama was viewed quite differently. She was reluctant to enter the public eye for fear of what it might mean for their daughters.
The media and public labelled her as angry and bitter and her popularity in polls went down. The lowest point came when she spoke in Milwaukee and said, “For the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country,” a statement that right-wing pundits publicized as proof that the Obamas are America-hating socialists. The misstatement was almost as serious as when Barack said that middle-class Americans become bitter and “cling to guns and religion” when faced with change.
Obama’s first instinct in the 2008 campaign was to argue Barack’s policies. Rather than sitting on the sidelines as most political spouses do, she began campaigning alongside her husband. However, the public reaction was negative and advisors saw the need for change. Since his election, she has been working to improve her image.
“Once she got into office, she realized that this was about [Barack] and it had to just be about him, or there was going to be a problem. She focused on issues that did not put her in the forefront and did not overshadow him,” Allison Samuels, a senior writer at Newsweek and author of What Would Michelle Obama Do? said in an interview with BBC news.
One of the earliest first ladies to step out of the shadows was Eleanor Roosevelt. She took up the cause of civil rights and rights for workers. She was the first presidential spouse to give interviews. This boldness was ill-received in some circles but it also influenced future political wives.
While no one frowns on her making speeches and supporting her husband, Obama has had to abandon her tough exterior and, according to Ohio University history professor Katherine Jellison, become “the kind of first lady that I think America is largely most comfortable with — the devoted wife and mother.”
Even without engaging in the political battle in a traditional sense, Ms. Obama clearly holds a lot of influence over the outcome of the upcoming election. After her latest address, a survey done by Slate News revealed that nearly 50 per cent of people said that the speech made them more likely to vote for Barack.
In her speech, Obama stated the need to sacrifice to get ahead and to help others. Perhaps for now, the wives of politicians will need to continue to put aside their own careers for the sake of their husbands. Whether they are on the front lines or in the background, the first lady has made it clear just how much power the woman of the house wields.
Photo: Sonya N. Herbert/The White House/Flickr