By Clodagh Harrington
Time magazine described it as a tour “fit for a rock star”. This is not how book promotional outings are usually billed – but then this is no ordinary tome. The memoirs of Michelle Obama comprise one half of a US$65m joint publishing deal for the former first couple’s autobiographies.
One measure of predicted global interest is that Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, will be translated into 28 languages. The month-long tour plan is bold, taking in ten major arenas, with an all-star line-up of moderators including Oprah Winfrey, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, businesswoman Valerie Jarrett, actress Sarah Jessica Parker and more. One is left in absolutely no doubt that the legacy of this First Lady stands robustly alongside that of her husband. Very few of her predecessors can make this claim.
The American Dream
Michelle Obama is a potent symbol of what is good about America. She reminds us that an African American girl from the poorer end of town has the potential to do and be anything. And not to simply become First Lady, which was a role forced upon her. By determination and hard work, she got to Harvard and Princeton and carved out a highly successful career in her own right.
When obliged to embrace the role of presidential wife, her reluctance was palpable in those early days. Such caution was well founded. Her dynamism and ability were on display throughout the 2008 election, and she campaigned energetically for her husband. But even prior to his victory, she got a taste of the vitriol that would come later. In one unguarded moment, for example, she said during the presidential primaries in 2008:
For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.
Her comments were made in relation to high voter turnout in the primaries but her opponents were not concerned with the context. Immediately, she was chastised and the criticism from some quarters continued unabated.
The ‘Angry Black Woman’
Traditionally, the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) has been presented as an appendage of the president, whose priority was spousal loyalty, whatever the challenges involved. She spent her time entertaining, engaging in charitable endeavours, and attempting to provide some sort of normality to children being raised in a profoundly abnormal environment.
Adichie talked of Michelle Obama having to “flatten herself” to better fit the mould of First Lady. She reminds us that because Michelle Obama did not smile constantly and vacuously, but only when she felt like it, she was given that cheapest of derogatory labels – the Angry Black Woman. Adichie added:
Women, in general, are not permitted anger – but from black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to groveling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted.
In Michelle Obama, the nation suddenly was faced with this stunning, independent entity – and not everyone was pleased. Others, however, were thrilled as they watched her blow the doors off what was previously the suffocating confines of the First Lady’s office.
FLOTUS and Feminism
Prior to Michelle Obama, the First Lady story was too often one of wonderful, capable, intelligent women being shoe-horned into a claustrophobic position with no formal office, portfolio, title or, of course, salary. They simply had to button their lips and smile. But Michelle Obama revolutionised the role of the First Lady and, as a result, it’s as though feminism has finally been recognised as a part of what the FLOTUS could be.
We must also now recognise the meaningful impact that a First Lady can have in getting legislation passed, and implementing significant policy change. However humble Michelle Obama’s family origins on the South Side of Chicago were, she has a platform like few others, and she uses her voice to promote a positive message on a range of key issues, including her FLOTUS project on child health and nutrition. Indeed, she reveals in the book how she offered her successor, Melania Trump, help or advice – a gesture so far ignored by Mrs Trump.
In her final year as First Lady, one Gallup poll reported a 64% approval rating for her (noticeably higher than that of her husband). In her post-White House role, Michelle Obama’s approval ratings have remained strong and even increased since she left the White House. When compared to her deeply uncontroversial predecessors, such as Laura or Barbara Bush, however, her poll numbers were relatively low. It’s clear that anyone who pushes boundaries and breaks down barriers isn’t not going to please everyone. Hillary Clinton learned this lesson the hardest of ways, when she lost the presidency to Donald Trump.
But Michelle Obama is extraordinarily relatable, down to earth, too. It’s refreshing to see in her memoir, for example, an acknowledgement that when their marriage needed it, the Obamas sought professional help.
Michelle has continuously demonstrated the capacity to lead by example, to balance conflicting roles, to raise two strong and capable daughters, and to clearly still be in a loving marriage, despite the strain that comes with eight years of scrutiny and criticism. In the words of her husband:
The way in which she blended purpose and policy with fun so that she was able to reach beyond Washington on her health care initiatives, on her military family work was masterful.
She remains an inspiration for future First Ladies, and women and girls everywhere.
Clodagh Harrington is an Associate Professor of American Politics at the De Montfort University.
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