It’s become something of an impossible problem, but it’s hardly the first time for a First Lady.
Unveil your ambitious plan to get your husband’s new Administration to initiate the most sweeping national mental health care reform legislation in over two decades to a seemingly interested national press corps.
The next day, however, media coverage fixates only on the fact that hard liquor will no longer be served to guests at your White House social events (including reporters).
Just ask Rosalynn Carter about that.
You undertake your own politically-charged diplomatic mission to a country traditionally hostile to your own, briefed by the State Department on the delicate maneuvering required .
And the Washington reporters making the journey to watch you just try cracking your composure to unload about the scandal engulfing the President.
On her way home from Venezuela, Pat Nixon never forgot that.
The second most powerful official is pushing the first most powerful official to veto a bill protecting the deepest of the world’s oceans from fuel exploitation – but the most powerful non-official is for it. She triumphs over the Vice President when the President signs it, but it never hits page one.
Having presidential influence obscured by her dogs, daughter’s wedding, or mother-in-law’s quips?
Laura Bush was likely expecting that.
You deliver speeches all over the nation, in gardens, in grocery stores, in schools, in corporate boardrooms, drawing on your personal experiences, health statistics, and economic forecasts, making clear your agenda goes beyond forging a nation of carrot-eating kids, to also reduce insurance costs, accelerate scientific strides and ensure national security.
Internet news outlets are sure to cover the most significant aspect of such appearances: “What was she wearing?”
Michelle Obama has learned that.
More often than not, individuals either adore or despise a First Lady based on the partisan politics of the President they are married to. Rarely are they examined or understood for how they employ their individual talents to preserve a nation’s traditions, protect its most vulnerable constituencies and defend its president as a person.
Almost universally, First Ladies are cast severely by one of either two labels – stylish/traditional or substantive/ untraditional.
Hillary Clinton couldn’t possibly have been interested in redecorating the Blue Room or creating a sculpture garden: she was the policy wonk. Nancy Reagan couldn’t really have been involved in presidential personnel: she was the clothes-horse.
Over the next week, the First Lady not only begins the sixth year of incumbency in her legally unofficial yet culturally powerful and politically unaccountable role but also marks her fiftieth birthday, making her the focus of even greater media focus than usual.
Following her White House birthday party this Saturday, there will be fabulous fashion analysis about whether she danced in Jimmy-who-shoes and outraged citizen alarm at the caloric intake of the cake served.
Using this moment to maintain more than fleeting focus on the First Lady, however, may give the public a chance to know their stylish First Lady’s substance and recognize how well she’s adapted traditions of her predecessors to forge her own distinct persona, find a balance point between her private and public lives – and do everything she does, even the seemingly spontaneous, with methodical care and focus.
For those who have followed Michelle Obama closely since the 2008 presidential election primaries, and then continued to read the transcripts of her remarks and watch the unedited videos of her appearances as First Lady, there is a discernible arc to her ambitious intentions and accomplishments.
Before agreeing to support her husband’s initial quest for the presidency, Michelle Obama had to review the experience through her own cost-benefit analysis chart, examining each component of their private lives and how it would be changed by making the run – and by potentially winning.
This approach of needing to know what would each step of the way would likely entail and what might be encountered reflected an orderliness of thought about what her life might be like were her husband to win the election, a conscientiousness about becoming First Lady rarely encountered in history.
By the time her husband won the 2008 presidential election, this former attorney, hospital administrator, and civic activist had already begun determining what aspects of her own story and private life she would provide for public consumption, choosing how much of herself as a person would be on display as her persona.
From even her earliest campaign interviews in the fall of 2007, Michelle Obama frequently raised a theme of American women striving to find “balance” as they attempted to dovetail family and work obligations. In truth, she was reflecting in public what was going on in her own private life, a fact she was quickly comfortable in disclosing.
At that time, Michelle Obama determined not to sacrifice the highly-involved personal supervision she had already invested in her two children, from ensuring that their leisure time was balanced with peer socializing and sports activity to overseeing the breadth and progress of their education.
Malia and Sasha Obama were 10 and 7 years old, respectively, when they moved into the White House, young enough to warrant concern that the onslaught of sudden global attention targeting them might rapidly warp their sense of self and erode the values with which they’d been conscientiously raised.
During the winter of 2008, feeling obligated by both loyalty to the candidacy of her husband, who needed her to make appearances as a surrogate on the campaign trail in primary states, and commitment to her daughters, then attending school daily during the spring term, Michelle Obama found the solution by asking for help from the person she called her confidante, her widowed mother Marian Robinson, who’d recently retired.
With their grandmother overseeing the Obama children, Michelle Obama was given peace of mind and able to focus on the political issues she addressed or was asked about as she made public campaign appearances alone or with her husband.
In forecasting her public role as First Lady in the days after the 2008 election, after settling on which Washington school to send her children, she coaxed her mother into moving into the White House to continue her role as caretaker of the Obama grandchildren. That now allowed Michelle Obama to focus without worry on the public role she would undertake.
During the course of the 2008 campaign, Michelle Obama quickly assumed an ease in her interaction with voters in both the primary and general elections by seeking to always personalize what were otherwise cast as large, remote public issues.
Frequently, for example, she detailed just how much debt the couple had accumulated, a good portion of it stemming from both of their Ivy League college and law school educations and not paid off until just a few years before the election, when the then-Senator had sold his first book and then reaped a reward of royalties.
Initially intended to evidence that she and her husband had not lived the rarefied existence of wealth which many presidential couples often had by the time they reached the White House, by tapping into her own personal life and experiences as a means of illustrating a larger point about policy would prove a successful blueprint for how she has continued to convey her messages on the social issues she chose to undertake as First Lady.
But it also unwittingly did something else. Even though the overwhelming majority of people who quickly came to feel they knew her would encounter Michelle Obama only on a television or the Internet, her willingness to speak about her own personal life experiences and comfort in doing so, made her accessible.
She often seemed to go off-script, cracking impromptu asides, sometimes at the expense of her husband (and later, her children). She explained just what growing up with a father who lived with multiple sclerosis really meant. She revealed how the intense support of her parents compensated for how little monetary foundation they had.
Yet none of it lingered indulgently; the words she used were less a reflection of ego but a matter of others, for she always quickly used these pieces of her life to focus at greater length and depth on what she was hearing in the stories of the American people she was encountering.
Methodically, the speech had been carefully constructed, written by Michelle Obama herself.
While she became personally accessible to the dozens, then hundreds and finally thousands of people who heard and watched her at rallies, she was first seen at length and by the widest viewership during her 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. None, least of all her, would realize that the seeds of her overwhelmingly high approval ratings over the next five years, were first planted that night in Denver.
It was on the campaign trail as she became exposed to a widely varying demographic of citizens and the problems they faced that Michelle Obama began to raise her concern about the alarmingly rising rates of childhood obesity and that the needs of families of armed service members on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan were not being adequately addressed.
In the period just prior to the National Democratic Convention which nominated her husband for the presidency through the fall campaign, Michelle Obama would mention the need to reduce childhood obesity rates and find a means of providing necessary assistance to military families as issues she would hope to help begin resolving when the press about her potential “projects.”
She would involve herself in those issues, however, only in the most methodical manner, each phase unfolding after a significant benchmark had been met before proceeding on to the next stage.
After resolving how her family would function while living in the White House and coordinating the move there from the family’s private home in Chicago, Michelle Obama then began to focus on assembling not merely an East Wing staff for herself but one with Washington experience in political brokerage drawn from Capitol Hill and the Democratic National Committee, along with former professional colleagues and the campaign.
If she was going to commit herself to a public role, she wanted it to be worth the effort – and that meant being methodical in defining the parameters of what she would and would not do as First Lady.
And if she would be criticized for everything she did do and everything she did not do, she would at least do what she wanted to, including the way she dressed, entertained and the style with which she conveyed substance.
Next: Michelle Obama: Impact & Influence