Although her husband generated most of the headlines during the first family’s trip to Africa, Michelle Obama recently generated some of her own. On July 2, she joined her predecessor, Laura Bush, at a Summit for African First Ladies, hosted by the George W. Bush Foundation. Obama’s remarks there stirred some controversy when she likened life in the first lady fishbowl to “prison.”
“There are prisonlike elements, but it’s a really nice prison,” she said, adding, “You can’t complain.” The very fact that the comments were picked up, and picked apart, reflects just how right she is about the prisonlike existence that comes with the role of first lady.
But the rare side-by-side sighting of the two women also raises interesting questions – namely, whether America is still a place that prefers its first ladies to be seen and rarely heard, like Laura Bush, or if it can handle women who are heard loud and clear, like Hillary Clinton? And where does Obama’s legacy fit into this dichotomy?
As Bush and Obama compared notes, it became clear that there are commonalities that bond them and all members of the so-called First Ladies Club, regardless of age or political party. One commonality is that their wardrobes and appearance are dissected more than their husbands’ ever were or will be.
At first glance it may seem that this is where the commonalities end for these two women. Bush was raised in the affluent oil town of Midland, Texas, where her future husband was a childhood classmate. She would remain in Texas for most of her adult life, attending Southern Methodist University as an undergraduate and the University of Texas for graduate school.
After working as an elementary school teacher and school librarian, she reconnected with, and married, George W. Bush, scion of an already established American political family. She would go on to become a popular and non-controversial first lady, with an approval rating of 73 percent, nearly 20 points higher than that of her predecessor, Clinton.
By contrast, Obama was raised in a working-class family in Chicago. She would pursue higher education in the Ivy league, first as an undergraduate at Princeton University and then at Harvard Law School, which her future husband also attended. Working at a major law firm and later in government, she became the breadwinner of the family as her husband slowly climbed his way up the political ladder from community organizer to president.
She would then become one of the most controversial spouses of a presidential candidate on record, with a 2008 campaign remark – “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country” – haunting her on the trail and framing her as an angry black woman in the eyes of some Americans.
But she has gone on to stage one of the most incredible comebacks in American history. While her favorability rating stood at 54 percent during the 2008 campaign, it has remained near 66 percent since her husband took office, reaching a high of 68 percent when he was sworn in.
It’s hard not to wonder if that is because she has undergone a Laura Bush-like first lady makeover during her time in the public eye.
When Obama first joined her husband on the campaign trail, she was a high-powered working mom, and she wore the high-powered suits to prove it. She looked like someone you would want representing you in court, not necessarily someone you expected to sit on the ground and read stories to your kids. But within less than a year, gone were the high-powered suits, replaced with dresses – the girlier the better. Some were sleeveless, some were sleek, some were full skirts with floral prints, but all screamed feminine, fun and, most of all, harmless.
But her fashion evolution was not the only noticeable transformation.
Whereas Obama once used the power of her name to explicitly fight for abortion rights, today she is best-known for advancing the cause of healthy eating for kids through the Let’s Move campaign. She is also known for images of her gardening, walking first dog Bo and reading to children – all activities that are much more likely to recall Bush than Clinton.
While Clinton is best-remembered for trying and failing to push health care reform, Bush is remembered for being her husband’s more likable, smarter, better half. Sound familiar?
In many ways, Obama embodies the best attributes of both first ladies who preceded her. She exudes the warmth of Bush and seems to share her disdain for politics – something that possibly makes both women more relatable to the average citizen. But there is no doubt that Obama has both the smarts and steely resolve that made former first lady Clinton such an effective senator and secretary of state. It would just be nice to see Obama given more of an opportunity to display those traits, now that her husband has been safely elected to a second, final term.
We saw a flash of this side of her when she put a heckler in her place at a fundraiser. Perhaps Obama could use some of this newfound first lady muscle to advance a substantive political or policy issue. For instance, Bush openly discussed her position on same-sex marriage, which conflicts with her husband’s, after he left office. Hopefully Obama won’t have to wait that long to find her voice.
There are too many important issues that need her – the real her, not just the made-over, Laura Bush version of her. Among the most important: promoting comprehensive sexual education and the importance of AIDS testing, particularly in the black community. We simply can’t afford to wait until she breaks out of the first lady prison for her to bring the same moxie she brought to her role as high-powered super lawyer to her current role as high-powered super first lady.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent and writes the Blogging the Beltway column.