Getting to know Michelle Obama

Prospective first ladies walk a superfine line. They must live in the background, but actively help the cause. Give rousing speeches, but say nothing that will hurt the cause. Show substance — but not too much, or they’ll look as though they’re trying to run the country.

Now that we’re down to two candidates, attention is focusing on the two candidates’ wives: Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama. This week seems to be Michelle Obama’s while she “looks for a new introduction,” as a New York Times headline put it Wednesday.

Early political attacks that variously questioned her patriotism or painted her as an angry black woman — combined with partisan analyses of everything from her Princeton senior thesis to her wardrobe — have led to this week’s appearance on TV’s “The View” and other efforts to meet Americans on her own terms.

So far, the consensus seems to be that her efforts are paying off.

‘Poised and prepared’
“Political handlers call such high-profile appearances on shows like ‘The View’  ‘makeovers,’ ” Newsday’s Verne Gay wrote, “but Obama acted like someone who had nothing to make over. She was poised and prepared, and burnished her image and helped her husband.

“In sum, a slam dunk.”

And, from the opposite coast: “The verdict: Michelle-O aced ‘The View’ test,” the San Francisco Chronicle’s Joe Garofoli wrote on SFGate.com.

“Even the Fox analyst on Shepard Smith’s show said compared to Barack’s horrid bowling stunt photo op, ‘this was a 10-strike.’ “

“So why should we care about ‘The View,’ the 11-year-old 10 a.m. chatfest around which is wrapped ads for Alzheimer’s medication, Fiber One Yogurt and Kohl’s?” he added. “Because polls say a lot of daytime watching suburban women and yes, men, are a bit slow to warm up to the Obama candidacy. And Michelle, in particular, has drawn some high negatives.”

Images ‘somehow symmetrical’
As the Times’ Alessandra Stanley noted in “The TV Watch,” “The amount of scrutiny the two spouses face is not commensurate — Mrs. Obama has endured far more virulent attacks by her critics — but it is somehow symmetrical. Mrs. Obama went on a popular television talk show to combat the notion that she is a little too authentic to be a first lady, while Mrs. McCain did it to undercut the image that she is too fake.

“Early on, Mrs. Obama was likened to Jackie Kennedy for her youth and fashion style, but lately, the strong and assertive African-American career woman is experiencing the kind of antifeminist hazing that Mrs. Clinton endured in the 1992.” And, it’s worth noting, that similarly assertive first ladies Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford endured before Hillary Rodham Clinton.

So, walking the tightrope in a ready-to-wear dress, “Mrs. Obama made a point of showing her warmer, more personable side,” Stanley wrote, “talking about her working-class parents and the joys of being the mother of two young girls, and even admitting that she serves bacon for breakfast and does not wear pantyhose, but she did not disguise her confident manner or her natural authority. Nor did she ever truly relax. When asked whether the reaction to some of her comments had led her to be more inhibited, Mrs. Obama replied somewhat stiffly, ‘I think in this media age I have to be cognizant.’

“Mrs. Obama said she was taking some cues from Mrs. Bush. ‘There’s a reason people like her,’ Mrs. Obama said. ‘It’s because she doesn’t, sort of, you know, add fuel to the fire.’ “

From Chicago to Princeton
From all accounts, Michelle Obama is indeed both assertive and substantive. She grew up in Chicago, part of the city’s black working class, and excelled at Princeton and Harvard Law. She became a lawyer, a hospital community-affairs director, a wife and a mother.

And now every word she utters, every paper she wrote, every suit or necklace she dons will be scrutinized as possible evidence of subtle messages, inner turmoil, you name it. Both she and Cindy McCain will be filling their speeches and appearances with purposeful messages as well — messages meant to be scrutinized — or at least digested:

As the Chronicle’s Garofoli summed up Michelle Obama’s signals on “The View”:

“Other, seemingly vapid information that actually isn’t: Barack eats bacon. Barack doesn’t take out the garbage. Translation to Suburbia: Don’t fear Barack. He’s just like your husband.”

Susan Albright, a MinnPost managing editor, writes about national and foreign developments. She can be reached at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 06/19/2008 - 06:48 pm.

    Michelle Obama should not have had to “soften” her image. She was always warm and direct. Unfortunately, that hyperbolic “for the first time I’m proud of my country” comment will play repeatedly in efforts to undermine Mr. Obama and paint her as an angry black.

    Stop and think about the kinds of things she might have been thinking of that were not sources of pride. Maybe Iran-Contra, the pinnacle of American meddling in South America. Ketchup as a vegetable. The S&L debacle. Impeachment of a president for lying about sexual behavior which the righteous prosecutors then broadcast gleefully in all media. Little kids asking their parents what was on the lady’s dress.

    Perhaps more immediately on her mind were the disgraceful actions of the Bush administration. Invading a sovereign country because we were afraid it might hurt us some time. Grossly violating the Geneva Conventions. Undermining centuries of law founded on Constitutional bedrock.

    Or maybe she was thinking of social wrongdoing, such as systematically shifting wealth to the wealthiest citizens. Dismantling environmental protections that had been bipartisan victories.

    Or maybe she was thinking of Katrina. The next time she’s asked to appear in a context that will be unthreatening to suburban moms, maybe she could remind them of how lucky they are.

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