Enough With the First Lady Job Approval Polls

Illustration for article titled Enough With the First Lady Job Approval Polls

America's a pretty divided country when it comes to most political matters. Old white dudes are pretty upset that "traditional America" is no longer, young people of color are dismayed that old white dudes are still in charge, and Congress, as Congress is wont to do, is fucking up. But at least one Washington fixture is riding high on a wave of mass approval— 73% of recent poll participants give a thumbs up to the job that First Lady Michelle Obama is doing. And while Mrs. Obama probably gives amazing hugs and seems like she'd be the best lunch date ever, the more important question isn't the sort of job she's doing as First Lady, but rather why the heck do we give the public the opportunity to weigh in on the performance of a non-elected official whose job, for the most part, is to be a supportive partner and eternal-date for the President?


The HOORAY FOR LADIES AND EQUALITY! part of my brain wants to celebrate the fact that Michelle Obama, an intellectually formidable black woman, is basically wiping the floor with every elected official in Washington, popularity-wise, according to a new poll from CNN. But that makes sense — she's not making any decisions that affect the outcome of the country, and she's not responsible for that garish fiscal cliff clock that now takes up a third of the screen when I'm just trying to get some goddamn stock market news. She's not a talking head who has spoken of "tax cuts" and "spending cuts" and "wreckonomics" (I don't know if people actually say "wreckonomics," but it sounds like a thing they'd make up on The Cycle) so much that my brain is changing the sound of her voice into the fwa fwa fwa trumpet mute sound from old Charlie Brown cartoons. Of course the First Lady going to be the most popular semi-political figure in the country. She's not pissing anyone off.

But what's strange to me about the CNN poll, and the Gallup Poll, and all other manners of polls that track what people think of First Ladies, is how the questions asked of the public are worded. Do you approve of how [name] is handling her job as First Lady?, asks CNN. Do you approve of the way [insert wife of President here] is handling the job of First Lady?, asks Gallup. Considering the fact that First Ladies aren't elected or appointed post-election by elected officials, and considering the fact that First Ladies don't traditionally hold outside employment, isn't asking about "her job" an invitation to judge her as a wife and mother? If you asked the 20% of poll respondents who said they "disapprove" of Michelle Obama's handling of the "job" of First Lady, would they have concrete criticisms of her "Let's Move" initiative, or would they, like this woman, imply that she's not demure and quiet and submissive enough, that she doesn't "look or act like a First Lady?"

I get why information about public perception of the First Lady (or future First Gentleman Bill Clinton, says my quixotic imagination) might be interesting or valuable to political strategists, as the spouse of the President often serves as a de facto diplomat, a goodwill ambassador both domestically and internationally. But the First Lady's job approval ratings aren't as germane to shit getting done as, say, the Vice President's, or any elected official's — especially since, historically, everyone's been by and large cool with how the President's wife was, uh, wifing. If we're going to ask about the First Lady's "job performance" because it reflects on the President, then why not ask of his children's job performance? Why not his relatives? Why not other famous people he hangs out with at campaign events? Being the First Lady is certainly a job, it's not a job that should be scrutinized alongside elected officials.

While America, overall, has liked its First Ladies just fine, what's much more interesting is how the percentage Americans who answer that they have "no opinion" on the FLOTUS's job performance has shrunk since Gallup first began collecting data. Has overpolling made average people think that their opinion capital-M-Matters, that judging the President's wife is part of our patriotic duty? In 1969, when Gallup asked Americans how they thought First Lady Pat Nixon was doing at her job, a full 40% said they had "no opinion." By 1988, only 17% of Americans had "no opinion" on Nancy Reagan, and by the middle of the Clinton years, only single-digits of those polled had "no opinion" on Hillary's job performance. This trend continued into the Bush years.

It's one thing to take the temperature of public opinion on a public figure. But it's another to continually goad the public into judging an elected official's wife's ability to adhere to a set of unspecified standards. How is the First Lady handling her job? Is she staying healthy? Is her family happy? Does she feel intellectually and emotionally fulfilled? Is the marriage and family life of another woman mine to judge? There are so many aspects of the "job" of First Lady that are hidden from the public and none of our business that it seems stupid to even ask how we feel about how she's doing.

First lady job approval polls are especially unnecessary now that we finally have a place expressly designed for the public to judge the mothering ability of other women: Teen Mom. And, uh, the entire Bravo network.





I love Michele Obama, but, if she weren't so personally charismatic, I'd have problems with how unambitious she seems to be. She is incredibly talented, accomplished and educated, so her constant demurrals and dismissals in terms of her own career seem either dishonest or depressing.