Until fairly recently, it looked like Michelle Obama was destined for the same public drubbing as Hillary Clinton, the only other First Lady to enter the White House with a law degree. It’s hard to remember this now, but the two have an awful lot in common. Michelle grew up just 25 miles from where Hillary did, also in a modest home with a homemaker mother. In high school, she too was ambitious and straitlaced, working hard enough to attend both a fancy college and law school (Princeton followed by Harvard, rather than Wellesley followed by Yale). She too became known as the family hard-ass (Michelle’s friends nicknamed her “the Taskmaster”). She too drew a higher salary in the private sector than her husband did in the public.
And like Hillary, Michelle discovered that any frank expression of her opinions on the campaign trail would instantly boomerang. When she ribbed her husband for his morning breath and all-around hopelessness when it came to putting away the perishables, Maureen Dowd wrote that some found her jokes “emasculating.” When Michelle told an audience in Milwaukee, “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country,” the observation was regarded as only a shade less apple pie than Hillary’s “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies,” and with the added valence of racial suspicion: Michelle was an “angry black woman,” in the words of syndicated columnist Cal Thomas; “Mrs. Grievance” according to the cover of the National Review.
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Yet by the time Michelle declared that her primary role in the Obama administration would be “mom-in-chief,” it had the ring of total plausibility, drawing far less contempt than Hillary received when she offered America her chocolate-chip-cookie recipe. The question is: Why?
Some of the differences, surely, can be chalked up to temperament and upbringing: Michelle’s campaign speeches teemed with warm anecdotes about her own stay-at-home mother, recently prompting The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates to muse, “In all my years of watching black public figures, I’d never heard one recall such an idyllic youth.” (Hillary’s father, on the other hand, made minor sport of humiliating his wife, according to Carl Bernstein’s A Woman in Charge.) Hillary generally framed her role as mother in policy terms (It Takes a Village), while Michelle tended to discuss hers in a more immediate, emotional vocabulary. One thinks of the moment in her convention speech when she described Barack driving home, white-knuckled, with their first child, “inching along at a snail’s pace, peering at us anxiously through the rearview mirror.” In one spare and true image, she managed to connect with her audience in a way that Hillary never did.
But perhaps an even bigger reason that Michelle’s East Wing ambitions seem authentic to us is a generational one. Hillary graduated from college in 1969, that extraordinary cusp year for boomer women, when it seemed that half the nation’s female graduates chose child-rearing as their main occupation while the other half marched boldly into the workplace, keeping custody of their last names and wearing the pants. (At her best friend’s wedding, Hillary wore a tux.) Working was a politicized choice, made against a politicized backdrop (the women’s movement, the civil-rights movement, Vietnam), with politics itself beckoning as a vocation. Yet many of the women who chose to work were still forced to make radical compromises. Just after law school, for instance, Hillary had a wealth of professional possibilities to choose from up north. But instead she followed Bill Clinton down to Arkansas, a virtual swampland for career women. She was savaged for keeping her last name and forced to pour tea for the ladies in the front rooms of the Governor’s Mansion while the men talked politics in the back. (“This,” one of Hillary’s friends told her, according to Bernstein, “is like mind Jell-O.”) It was a recipe for lifelong resentment.
By the time Michelle Obama came along, however, the age was both more and less progressive. Banking and corporate law were more appealing to her college cohort than political activism, but far more women were joining the workforce. They’d seen the generation before them attempt—imperfectly, but still—to balance work and family. If anything, Barack helped Michelle expand her professional horizons, encouraging her to leave her banal job at a big Chicago law firm for the more self-determining work of community outreach (for which she made as much as $315,000 annually, as a hospital executive). She, in turn, introduced Barack to a number of figures who’d prove influential to him, including Valerie Jarrett, his public liaison. When he won his Senate seat, Michelle wouldn’t so much as follow him to Washington, D.C., let alone Arkansas. The balance she and Barack have struck over the years has by no means been ideal. Her husband wrote about it with bracing honesty in The Audacity of Hope: “ ‘You only think about yourself,’ she would tell me. ‘I never thought I’d have to raise a family alone.’ ” But Michelle could at least talk with Barack about his absences. And her career didn’t seem to suffer much in spite of her choices.
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.