Her physical presence transcends fashion and projects natural power. Her easy warmth and confidence seem unlimited, as is her ability to connect with ordinary people. As Michelle Obama turns 50, Suzanne Harrington pays tribute to the First Lady
SO AMERICA’S First Lady Michelle Obama turns 50 on Jan 17. You’d never think it: with her vitality and glow she looks years younger. She and her husband could be a gym advertisement; fit, attractive, clear eyed, the Obamas are the poster couple for physical and emotional health and well being. She is the most radiant and vital First Lady in decades.
Since her husband took office in 2009, American public health and wellbeing has been Michelle Obama’s primary public concern. Not Obamacare — this was her husband’s headache. The Obamas did not wish to repeat the mistakes of the Clintons when Bill disastrously gave the unelected Hillary the job of implementing healthcare reforms; this stepped on many toes and got the Clinton healthcare policy nowhere. In her role as FLOTUS Hillary was widely detested by conservatives for being a scary white feminist whom nobody had elected, yet who was perceived by many to be running the show; the Clintons massively miscalculated with their Buy One Get One Free idea of the presidency.
Michelle And Barack Obama were far more savvy. In 2008, she was earning rather more than her husband in a successful legal career. On his election she quit her law practice, put on the first of many pretty cardigans, and declared her primary role as First Lady was to be mother to her two daughters Malia and Sasha. So far, so unHillary. She was not about to push an overt feminist agenda, because great swathes of middle America would have reacted badly; they were already terrified of this confident, successful, highly educated black woman arriving at the White House.
However, while Michelle wasn’t foolish enough to attempt to radicalise the White House overnight, nor was she harking back to the cookie-baking female eunuch era of the Bush wives, Barbara and Laura. While Laura Bush’s ratings were consistently high even as her husband George Dubya’s regularly tanked, this was because she remained entirely apolitical and never did or said anything controversial, other than inoffensive literacy promotion campaigns. Michelle Obama was too dynamic for such passivity.
In her early days in the public eye, before entering her role as First Lady, America mistrusted Michelle Obama. When she and Obama did that infamous congratulatory fist bump in 2008, prior to winning the election, the right-wing media reacted with hysteria: America would be ruled by the Black Panthers led by an angry black woman who would wreak her revenge on the white patriarchy. Obama was a non-American Muslim, and Michelle a fist-bumping quasi-terrorist. You probably remember all the hoo-ha. All from a fist bump.
Yet once inside the White House Michelle’s approval ratings rose steadily and remain constant at around 66%. She is as poised and popular in inner city schools as she is greeting European royalty; her easy warmth and confidence seems unlimited, as is her ability to connect with ordinary people on a seemingly equal basis. She is, she says, a hugger. And, European royalty aside, people tend to love huggers.
Politically, Michelle’s big push has been the anti-obesity campaign Let’s Move. When she launched it in Feb 2009, she did so with immense passion, offering as a mission statement that the physical and emotional well being of an entire nation was at stake — she wanted America to look at what it was eating, and to get off the sofa. In First Lady terms, this was outspoken, but given the state of American health, inarguable. In terms of reaching ordinary citizens, it was hugely successful. In a nation not famous for being switched on to public policy, 8 out of 10 Americans have heard of Let’s Move.
“Positioning herself as credibly down-to-earth as a First Lady can, she drew on her own experience as a ‘regular mom on the south side of Chicago’ who allowed her kids to watch too much television and eat unhealthy food,” says Dr Clodagh Harrington, senior lecturer in US politics at DeMontfort University, Leicester. “However unlikely this tale was, considering her own high-end socio-economic status, it gave her capital to spend. Her 1,100 square foot vegetable garden at the White House received widespread and supportive media coverage. The campaign clinched its celebrity credentials, with its launch theme sung by Beyonce.”
In other words, Michelle was cool. She projected cool, she knew cool people, and was sincerely engaged in getting ordinary people eating well and feeling well. She was tech-savvy, in that she used social media effectively to communicate with voters, and she broke new ground with her organic vegetable garden.
Obviously there was a backlash. On the third anniversary of Let’s Move in Feb 2013 Michelle’s mission statement was far more diluted and focused on taking exercise rather than avoiding unhealthy food. The giant industrial food companies and the fertiliser industry had not been impressed with her promotion of organic food, yet as an unelected First Lady she could not take on Big Food.
Instead she chummed up with union-busting supermarket giant Walmart, to get them on board. While this appalled some commentators, it got results. Walmart did come on board a bit by reducing salt content and extending their organic range. She also cuddled up to Nike, getting them involved in school exercise programmes. It was a smart, pragmatic move, given the essential powerlessness of her role. “You can imagine she has been biting her tongue fairly continuously for the past five years,” says Dr Harrington.
What makes Michelle Obama such a roundly successful First Lady with such widespread appeal is her accessibility. Her realness. Of her extraordinary position in the world, she has said that “the only difference between me and every other woman I know is that my challenges are publicised and I’m doing this juggling in front of cameras.”
And there’s the love thing, which is almost tangible. She and her husband both possess that rare winning combination of temperament and intellect; they embody intellectual and emotional intelligence. That famous hug photo on his re-election looked entirely genuine and unstaged. She has referred to her husband as the love of her life, and her best friend; as a couple, they are telegenic, attractive, and articulate. The reality is that she is probably even cleverer than her husband — she was once his law firm mentor.
Born in south Chicago in 1961, the descendant of South Carolina slaves, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson came from a working class Democrat family that read a lot and valued education enormously. Growing up in a one bedroom apartment, she and her brother Craig, who was 21 months her senior, slept in the sitting room, with a sheet as a privacy partition. Their father, Fraser Robinson worked in the city’s water plant, and their mother Marian was a secretary. They were a conventional, close family who enjoyed reading and spending time with one another.
Both Michelle and her brother could read by the age of 4. Both skipped second grade. By sixth grade, Michelle was officially in the gifted category, and was taking classes beyond her age range. She learned French, and went on to attend a school for gifted children. Remembers her brother Craig, “Without being immodest, we were always smart, we were always driven and we were always encouraged to do the best you can do, not just what’s necessary. And when it came to going to schools, we all wanted to go to the best schools we could.”
Michelle graduated from high school in 1981 and followed her brother to the very white institution of Princeton University, graduating in 1985 with a sociology degree. She went from there to the equally white Harvard Law School, graduating in 1988. During her Harvard years she participated in demonstrations demanding more students and teachers from different ethnic backgrounds.
She did well both at Princeton and Harvard and qualified as a lawyer, meeting Barack Obama when they were the only two black lawyers at her law firm. She was assigned to mentor him. Their first date was at the cinema (Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing) and they married in Oct 1992, recently celebrating their 21st wedding anniversary. Their daughters were born in 1998 and 2001.
When they moved to the White House Michelle said her primary concern was the smooth transition of her girls, who were still very young. She spoke a lot with Hillary Clinton on how to keep the children grounded, and how to protect them from the savage media scrutiny . Happily, the Obama children are as telegenic as their parents, which has spared them some of the barbed media coverage aimed at Chelsea Clinton and other former White House children.
In her five years at the White House, Michelle Obama has won the admiration and acceptance of the majority of ordinary Americans by not coming across too patrician or inaccessible, but by emphasising the safe role of First Mom, and by appearing genuinely concerned about the health and welfare of the nation with her Let’s Move campaign.
By wearing inexpensive dresses, rather than high end designs, her style is the opposite of Nancy Reagan’s rich-thin Chanel look, nor does she emulate the high glamour of Jackie Kennedy; her style is clean, elegant, and with powerful yet graceful use of colour.
She is the physical embodiment of health and vitality, which sends a far more powerful message than having expensive hair or an exclusive wardrobe; her physical presence transcends fashion, and projects natural power.
On her husband’s inauguration in 2009, commentators wondered what sort of role Michelle Obama would carve out for herself. Charity work and philanthropy were old hat, but policy making was out of the question too, given the unelected status of the FLOTUS.
Then there were all those vituperative political opponents, plus the right-wing media, all hoping to find something to throw at the First Couple.
They found nothing. Not a thing. The Obamas really were products of the old fashioned idea of American Dream — hard work, determination, and high intelligence levels in both thinking and feeling. Oh, and dashing good looks, plus charm and poise.
While Barack has battled through some of the most difficult political situations in recent history, Michelle has emerged as a force of pure positivity. Her policy has been to nudge.
Too reined in by her role to take on the industrialised food industry, she has instead encouraged people to empower themselves through exercise. She will be remembered as someone who stuck her neck out a little, and tried to make a difference.
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