Originally published in the JHU Politik on March 4th, 2013.
Last week a video of Michelle Obama “mom dancing” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon went viral on the Internet. She also made an appearance at the Academy Awards to present the award for Best Picture. These recent events reinforce what we know so well about her: Michelle is a classy, fit, and stylish woman. A devoted wife and a loving mother, she fills the First Lady position with grace.
And yet, when I think about her role in the White House, I can’t help but feel, on some level, real disappointment.
Michelle Obama attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She then worked in a Chicago law firm and on behalf of Chicago mayor, Richard M. Daley. Yet this side of Michelle—the impressive, ambitious intellectual—is too often concealed from the public. If it’s acknowledged at all, it’s merely to show that she appreciates first-hand the promise of the American Dream and how hard it can be for individuals to make ends meet. But really, that’s about the full extent.
We could say everyone behaves like that—we live in an anti-intellectual society and everyone minimizes his or her scholarly side. And to some extent, we do. One needn’t look further than a few years back to recall President George W. Bush publicly criticizing his Ivy League pedigree in an attempt to gain a more populist appeal. However it’s undeniable that President Obama portrays himself as a thoughtful, smart and reserved leader. This is his public image. He’s known for being a constitutional law professor, a reader of Philip Roth and Herman Melville, and the President of the Harvard Law Review.
Michelle, like her husband, is an eloquent speaker; we saw this with her moving remarks at the Democratic National Convention. But even that speech, like so many of her speeches, downplayed her professional achievements and emphasized her role as a wife and a mother. She concluded with, “You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still mom-in-chief.” This is her public image.
Perhaps this is all strategic: have Michelle be the endearing figure to provide her husband the space to work on more difficult goals. But , even if this is so, it should not be accepted without scrutiny.
When I think about inspirational First Ladies I think of Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt. Hillary Clinton took on one of the most politically challenging obstacles of the day—health care reform. Eleanor Roosevelt fought for racial equality and labor standards. Both women were vociferously attacked, but I admire them for their bravery. They worked hard to bring light to uncomfortable topics.
Michelle’s path has followed Laura Bush’s and Nancy Reagan’s. Laura Bush worked to promote literacy, while Nancy Reagan counseled children to “Just Say No” to drugs. Michelle is working to combat obesity and promote healthy nutrition. It’s not that these things are unimportant, but they aren’t particularly “brave” either.
I’d like to see the smart and accomplished Michelle speak out on some of the tougher issues we face. Low-income housing? Parental leave policy? Education reform? The list could be very long, and there is certainly room (and need) for her to tackle something else alongside her nutrition campaign. Besides, sociological determinants such as quality housing, income-level, and education contribute to the choices people make in nutrition. By taking on the battles of deeper disparities, Michelle could not only meet the goals of her nutrition campaign, but also address inequities that permeate society.
Michelle is darling, but I want her to be bold. She is arguably the most powerful woman in the country, and has a real opportunity to use her influence, intelligence, and popularity to bring some political attention to hard issues. She has the approval and good will of the public. She should use it.
We know she loves her husband. We know she loves her children. But we also know there is a whole lot more to her than that and her chic demeanor. I hope in the future to read fewer headlines about her bangs, cool dresses, and shades of nail polish.
Call me crazy, but I believe there is much more to Michelle Obama than we have been privileged to see.