What is the role of the modern first lady? In Sunday's Washington Post, Robin Givhan takes Michelle Obama to task for failing to advocate for a specific cause during her first year in the White House.
Givhan explains that Michelle Obama keeps busy with a variety of events - but also notes that the events fail to give a real impression of the personal views or political motivations of the first lady:
Her events generated pictures for Facebook pages, blogs and brag walls, but not narratives. They made the attendees feel appreciated, special and listened to. But Obama did not attempt to convert audiences of nonbelievers on issues ranging from health-care reform to gender equity. The provocative campaigner, professional advocate, onetime community health-care liaison and "rock" of the Obama family has presided over events that often seemed more dutiful than inspired.
The article criticizes Obama for being too stiff at formal events, noting that she shares a speechwriter (and, by extension, a voice) with the President, which keeps her in lockstep with the goals of the Administration. However, the article chokes on its own theory, explaining early on that the more reserved and official Michelle Obama remains, the higher her approval ratings soar. And, considering Shortsgate, perhaps it is a good strategy for her to keep a low profile.
Even as Obama is staying neutral in her public persona, she still has managed to accomplish quite a few of her personal goals:
Obama quickly accomplished one of her primary goals as first lady — she opened the White House to a wide range of individuals; she made it a place where the arts are celebrated; and she connected with her new community, visiting schools and launching a mentoring program. For some, that's plenty.
However, Givhan notes that she has not yet advocated for one specific cause, which means some believe she is not living up the legacy of first ladies before her:
"She's brought star power to a lot of different settings," says Myra Gutin, a historian and author of "The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century." "Anything she does is going to be a positive for that organization."
"An advocate, to me, means picking one sustained project and bringing all your focus and force to an issue," Gutin says. "When Lady Bird Johnson decided to advocate environmentalism — or what she called beautification — she was all over the country with it. That's what I think of as really advocating.
"The advocacy followed her out of the White House. The same thing happened with Barbara Bush," who supported literacy. "Whenever she gives a speech, she brings a new reader with her. With Michelle Obama, I think it's cool she's interested in mentoring, and I think that's got a lot of potential for her. If she really wants to push mentoring, get the program going elsewhere."
Interestingly enough, Obama does have a cause she wants to champion: childhood obesity. All the "scattered" interests like children's health initiatives (Obama was on the cover of a special supplement, Children's Health, a brand extension of Men's and Women's Health,) a focus on fresh foods and physical fitness are all different aspects of the same thing: improving the health of our nation by targeting multiple factors that lead to excess weight gain in childhood.
This measured approach may not be enough to assuage Obama's critics, but another first lady may be able to provide the last word. According to Barbara Bush:
"The First Lady is going to be criticized no matter what she does. If she does too little. If she does too much. And I think you just have to be yourself and do the best you can. And so what? That's the way it is."
First lady Michelle Obama has lacked focus in her advocacy in her first year [Washington Post]
First Lady Featured in Children's Health Magazine Special Issue [Michelle Obama Watch]
Biographies [First Ladies]