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First lady firsts: The other Obama…

January 20, 2009 by  
Filed under News, Politics, Weekly Columns

(Akiit.com) To fashionistas, she’s Michelle O, the new Jackie – and they hope she’ll send women to the malls in droves, looking to match her style.

Post-feminists see Michelle Obama as one of their own, the having-it-all Harvard-educated lawyer who’s embracing her role as “mom in chief” to two young daughters.

African-American women say she’ll upend age-old stereotypes of the angry black woman who can’t find a good man, or keep him when she does.

The one person who hasn’t really weighed in is Michelle Obama. And it’s got the cottage industry of people who pay close attention to the president’s wife – the historians, the cultural mavens, the social scene-setters — frankly a little confused.

That uncertainty, some say, relates to race – put simply, Obama is like no other famous black woman who came before her. She’s not a single workaholic like Condoleezza Rice. She’s not from the entertainment world like Beyonce. She’s famous, but in an entirely different way than, say, Oprah.

“I think that black women will constantly have to translate and explain who Michelle Obama is, I have heard people say that they don’t know any black women like her and she seems to be so aggressive, and why does she downplay her career and talk about being a mom so much,” said Beverly Guy-Sheftall, a women’s studies professor at Spelman College.

“She is going to be hyper visible and having always to explain what she means. But there is always the possibility that Michelle will get constructed as an atypical black women, like Condi, and people think that she is so special and so different that we can’t even think about her as a black women. We hope that doesn’t happen.”

What’s adding to the confusion is that, by now, the historical model of first lady is usually pretty clear, much in the way that Barack Obama has been clear about his recipe for presidential leadership -— Lincoln and Roosevelt, perhaps even a dash of Reagan.

Michelle Obama might be the only incoming first lady to draw comparisons to Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Hillary Clinton — and even the fictional Clair Huxtable of Cosby TV show fame…

“Every potential first lady comes into office and someone on the staff will always say that she will be her own first lady and have her own style — but some first ladies will say they admire Lady Bird Johnson or Eleanor Roosevelt,” Myra Gutin, a first lady historian, said. “But there’s still a lot that’s cloudy with Michelle Obama.”

Michelle Obama’s press materials mention Nancy Reagan’s assertion that every first lady must define the job for herself – and that Obama will do the same.

Obama often chatted with Hillary Clinton during the campaign but there is no indication that she will position herself as a sort of “co-president,” as the Clintons did early on in Bill Clinton’s presidency.

In fact, there’s every indication that Michelle Obama, like Laura Bush, will be anything but Clinton, the first lady with a briefcase and a power point presentation, who rankled senators by calling them by their first names.

While Obama was an active and mostly effective part of her husband’s campaign, headlining fundraisers and traveling two to three days a week to deliver her “girl from Chicago” stump speech, she often played coy when it came to policy, saying at one point that she didn’t want to get into specifics, for fear that she might get something wrong.

“She won’t try to run Washington but she will always be there to be helpful to President Obama in his work as chief executive,” said Charles Ogletree, who taught Michelle Obama at Harvard Law School and remains in touch. “I think it’s good to see a complementary rather than a competitive relationship.”

Onto the rather blank slate of how she’ll fill her role, Obama has coined the phrase “mom-in-chief” to explain what her primary focus will be in the White House. But she’ll certainly have to be more than that, historians say. Inactive first ladies are judged harshly, at least in the long view.

A new CBS News/New York Times poll out Sunday finds that Americans feel largely positive towards incoming first lady Michelle Obama – more positive, in fact, than they have about past incoming first ladies. Forty-six percent of those surveyed say they have a favorable opinion of Michelle Obama, while just seven percent say their opinion is not favorable. An additional 45 percent are undecided or do not have an opinion.

Compare that with first ladies past: Laura Bush had a 30 percent favorable rating when she entered the White House, while Hilary Clinton’s favorable rating stood at 38 percent. Barbara Bush’s favorable rating at the start of her husband’s term was 34 percent, and Nancy Reagan’s was 28 percent.

In the White House, Laura Bush maintained high approval ratings, even while her husband’s sank – but in the eyes of historians, she doesn’t crack the top ten list of the best first ladies. Roosevelt has reigned supreme for 25 years with Laura Bush coming in near the bottom.

Roosevelt reached out to non-traditional groups, like blacks, and got them on board with her husband’s new deal agenda and traveled to hear from average Americans when her husband couldn’t.

Obama must strike a similar note, according to one historian.

“She has to look caring. But she can’t flaunt the fact that she has power, it has be somewhere in the middle,” Betty Boyd Caroli, an Eleanor Roosevelt, scholar said. “She has a bigger burden than someone coming in when times are good.”

So far, Michelle Obama has said that she’s interested in military families (a non-traditional group for Democrats), volunteerism, and work life balance issues. But Jill Biden, the incoming second lady has also expressed an interest in military families, and community service is one of Barack Obama’s top issues, too.

And issues around work and family could become political, veering into more hot-button policy issues like work leave and equal pay, a potentially Clinton-esque minefield for a first lady, already burdened with questions around race.

Perhaps racial issues are the heaviest, and certainly the most unique, burdens for Michelle Obama, who black women have championed as a prime role model for the modern African-American woman. On the trail, she was a kind of envoy into the black community for her husband, speaking at black churches and community centers, and helping to put her husband’s black bona fides in order — it helped that she was viewed by many as a “real” black woman, dark-skinned and with South Side Chicago roots.

In a book of collected letters called “Go, Tell Michelle,” black women rhapsodize on the meaning of Michelle Obama. The love, admiration and expectations run deep. And it’s personal.

“I’d given up hope that I’d get to keep my booty and succeed in the commercial production world of NYC,” one letter reads. “I honestly didn’t believe I’d be able to be intelligent and sexy at the same time and be taken seriously … You two have revolutionized what I believe to be possible in Black life.”

Or this: “You are me. When I look at you, I see me.”

Her all-American image—working, but doting, mother and wife—has power, especially for black women.

“Michelle disrupts a lot of the racial and gender stereotypes that people have about black women, that they are single, unhappy, angry, not very literate, or hustlers, hypersexual, inappropriate, mammy, seductress, I could go on, servant, all of those stereotypes are all out there,” Guy-Sheftall. “I think the dominant culture doesn’t know what to do with Michelle, so they put her in a frame with which they are familiar. The angry black woman stereotype is predictable, we know that one, then when she was not really conforming to that story, then it shifted to her fashion.”

Indeed, her dazzling turn on The View wearing a black and white summer dress (some read the pattern as some coded comment about integration), caused a run on the dress.

Fashion experts say she is a bridge-builder when it comes to what to wear—she mixes off the rack with couture.

“She knows what looks great on her body, she dresses with a smart perspective,” said Jayne Chase, co-host of A Fashionable Life, “If there are pictures of her floating around people will look to the color and the style, the silhouette, very much like they did with Jackie O.”

Yet the Kennedy comparison doesn’t really stand up, experts said. Jacqueline Kennedy was 31 when she entered the White House, and she was practically a princess, with the feathery voice to match. Michelle Obama, the great-great granddaughter of South Carolina slaves, turned 45 Jan. 17 and is a Harvard-trained lawyer.

“Jacqueline Kennedy was the first lady of style, but not the first lady of substance,” Gutin said. And I think that Michelle Obama has substance. Do I think she is the second Jackie O? No.”

Over the last few weeks, as her husband assembled a supporting cast at a record pace, Michelle Obama has stayed largely out of the limelight, emerging here and there to announce staff picks and a decorator, but mostly focusing on her two girls, aides said.

So the big choices, what issue she’ll champion and who she will be to the nation, are yet to be revealed.

Asked before the election, what kind of first lady she would be, Michelle Obama had this to say.

“It’s hard to know,” she said in a Good Morning America interview. “What I do know is that given the many skills that I have on so many different levels, I will be what I have to be at the time. And it really will depend on what the country needs, what my family needs, what Barack needs. So I want to remain flexible enough so whatever is needed of me, that’s what I will do.”

Written By Nia-Malika Henderson

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