Of course, Michelle was never interested in running for elected office. Perhaps that, in the end, is the simplest explanation for why we believe her when she says she’s content to take up residence in the East Wing. She’s not depending on the White House to supply her with a vocation. Nor is she craving the spotlight. For all her practice on the hustings, Michelle still races through her public remarks too quickly, her voice quavering. Her case of nerves is precisely what gave her convention speech its extra power. We felt for her. We’d be the same up there. Who’d want to do this, anyway? Whereas Hillary … well, most of us are familiar with that story. At law school, those who knew both her and Bill always assumed it was she who’d make the better presidential candidate. By the time she got to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in 1993, her thwarted executive self was desperate to come out.
Many working women have expressed disappointment over Michelle’s choice to be mom-in-chief. But being a stay-at-home mother at the White House is hardly the same as being a stay-at-home mom in Hyde Park. It’s a more peculiar job, for starters—how do you negotiate a normal life for your kids when the Secret Service trails them to slumber parties? Second, there may be a race-and-class-based cast to the complaint. “Most African-American women I know are thrilled she’s in a position to make that choice,” noted Allison Samuels in the December 1 issue of Newsweek. “The average African-American family can’t survive without two incomes.” Let’s also remember that Michelle may be the only woman in the United States who can drop out of the workforce for four or eight years with no worries about losing her professional momentum.
But I also suspect that Michelle’s professional skills will not lie fallow in the East Wing. She’s a quick study, becoming an expert politician in a stunningly short period of time. People think she’s too brassy? Fine, she’ll stop teasing Barack about his failure to put his socks in the hamper. (“If the joke is clouding the point,” she explained to Vogue, “then let’s just get to the point.”) People think she’s an Ivy League elitist? Fine, she’ll retool her stump speech to emphasize her modest roots. People think she’s unpatriotic? Fine, she’ll be as American as apple pie, declaring herself “mom-in-chief.” Like her husband, she is a shrewd and inspiring communicator, better than any First Lady most of us can remember. And like her husband, she’s well rounded, in touch with both her maternal and professional sides. (Did you know her Secret Service code name is Renaissance? True story.)
We have, in our minds, a false dichotomy: that First Ladies are either Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush. But that is, of course, a totally crude notion. It’s just that we don’t know what a third way of First Lady–dom looks like. Michelle, though perhaps the ideal kind of woman to show us, is also a complicated one. She’s a private person in a public role, a black woman in a costume drama played previously only by whites, an outspoken professional with a traditional sense of hearth and home. We all feel like we know her, but we don’t really. She has learned to dole herself out with extreme care. All we can rely on is what we’ve seen and heard. Much of that is more material than intellectual—her fashion sense, her arms, her kitchen, her kids, her awesome height. But we’ve recently gotten a glimpse of the opinionated, professional Michelle, too, when she spoke to government workers last month, cheering the stimulus and their morale. What kind of First Lady she’ll ultimately be, we don’t know. People often project more onto the role than First Ladies themselves project outward. But it’s the ability to take advantage of those projections that separates a political wife from a political icon.