Politics

Michelle Obama: Hillary 2.0?

Democrats who are disappointed — even angry — that Hillary won’t be in the White House next year shouldn’t despair.  They may well get their wish, but not in the way they expected.  The next Hillary in the White House won’t be  the second coming of the old one:  the next Hillary may be Michelle Obama. 

She isn’t sharing the ticket, but neither did Hillary (at least formally).  And so far, there hasn’t been any of the Clinton’s old “two for one” rhetoric.  But no one should underestimate the influence Michelle has on her husband.  It’s not always true, but often as a matter of culture, even faith, a statesman’s wife is his primary adviser.  In Hillary’s case, she used her position as a launching pad for an important political role in the Clinton Administration, and . . . well, the rest is history.

There are enough parallels between Hill and Michelle to suggest that Mrs. Obama, if she chooses, might yet prove in her own way as powerful — and as incendiary — as her Rodham predecessor. 

There are similar educations, ambition and levels of achievement.  Similar politics and outspokenness, and somewhat rebarbative personalities compared to their charismatic husbands.  And both have been political activists who have been deeply involved in their husbands’ careers while honing hardened public personas that are proud, immovable and treacherous for adversaries: Scylla and Charybdis, as politics and politicians swirl and break around them. 

Maybe a highly politicized spouse is what it now takes to succeed in Democratic Party politics.  It certainly seems to help, and the Democratic model for the presidency now includes an activist spouse — as long as she’s female.  We can expect the Democrats’ first First Gentleman to play Denis Thatcher, lest he be accused of keeping the little woman at home, reinforcing the glass ceiling or otherwise playing out a sexist cliché.  He’ll have to retire into the background . . . but without the consolation of a baronetcy that conferred hereditary knighthood on Denis.

Not so if the spouse is an accomplished woman.  There will be the usual First Lady stuff but probably also some involvement in policy, whether formal or informal — heading commissions or chairing conferences, for example, and as always, advising her husband at the very least about personalities.

With the asset of a Michelle — as the Democrats might see it — why not a substantial role?  She’s a twofer times two of the most rare and exquisite kind, an African-American-working-class-woman-who-lifted-herself-up-by her-own-bootstraps-mother-wife-professional.  A brilliant student from a poor background, scholarship student at Princeton and  graduate of Harvard Law School, serious corporate lawyer, and a whiz with hyphens.

The problem will be memories of Hillary’s own performance.  Her one visible venture into policy  — the aborted health care task force  — was too much for all but the Clintons’ most ardent supporters.  Even the media, once the story of the task force’s illegal meeting procedures got out, weren’t about to back her play. 

If he avoids the Clintons’ clumsiness, a President Obama would likely succeed and do more with Michelle in his arsenal.  Michelle could be involved in anything and everything she desired, and from what we know of her, she’ll want to be into everything. 

No surprise that Hillary and Michelle’s politics look to 40 years of a calcified liberalism (Limousine Division) that makes their call for “change” as ironic as it is fatuous.  Both had essentially conventional, even conservative, childhoods but became liberal activists after drinking deep from the well of 60s and 70s radicalism; in Michelle’s case partially spiked with the no doubt gratifyingly transgressive shiver of black nationalism that would eventually lead her — and her somewhat racially insecure husband — aboard Spaceship Trinity Church.
 
If Hillary came of age in a sharply political era, Michelle was broadly influenced by the final woozy fumes of dashiki days and Afro nights. She is less overtly political than Clinton but still describes herself as formidable and a “big mouth” who would never hold her tongue if Barack wanted her thoughts on policy.  Michelle, unlike Hillary has disavowed a role as adviser so as not to offend primary voters or overshadow Obama’s emerging persona. The campaign likes to define her primarily as wife and mother: that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

But an adviser is what she is — and an important one.  Before Barack began his campaign, in February, 2007, Britain’s Daily Telegraph frankly noted that “she vets her husband’s speeches and lets him bounce policy ideas off her.”  Katie McCormick Lelyveld, her spokeswoman, let slip with breathtaking presumption that Michelle’s first priority would be as mother and wife and then “really rising to the occasion” after “assessing what the country needs.”

Occasionally — amid the now-routine words of love, praise and support for her husband — the general tone of Michelle’s politics becomes quietly evident.  Try as they might, campaign aides have not been able to entirely batten down Michelle in loose-cannon, tart-tongued-sister mode.  She not only has suggested that she was not proud of her country until Barack ran for President, but she pulled a John Edwards by suggesting — against all evidence, perhaps best exemplified by her and large slices of the black community — that “life for regular folks has gotten worse over my lifetime.”

She has also decried the war in Iraq as preempting resources that could be better spent alleviating poverty, and she is never far from talking about the racism she claims pervades the country or the concomitant need for “diversity.”  Before the campaign put a lid on it, Michelle was quoted in early 2007 as saying “there are no serious conversations about health care or education, or child care, or [the] minimum wage.  And while claiming that “I’m not that into labels,” she said that she would “probably agree with a large portion” of feminist ideology.
 
Occasionally, a radical streak emerges, no doubt inadvertantly.  At a dinner of the “Gay and Lesbian Leadership Council” of the Democratic National Committee, she implicitly went further than her husband by supporting the “right” of homosexuals to legal status for their conjugal arrangements.  According to Michelle, states should “decide for themselves how best to pursue equality for gay and lesbian couples — whether that means a domestic partnership, a civil union, or a civil marriage.”
 
In fact, what beliefs she has revealed give off an odor of just the kind of old style Democratic politics that her husband claims to have transcended.
 
Of course, if Barack becomes President, Michelle might decide to avoid substantial political involvement to protect her husband and to experience the  joys of raising children.  Unlike Hillary, whose child was almost 13 at the beginning of the Clinton Administration, Michelle has two pre-teens, the younger of whom will be eight next year.  Not likely. 
 
She’s smart, aggressive and has strong opinions.  And  she maintained a full time career in a prominent position before Barack’s campaign — even with young children.  Given many of the same personal qualities and a few more years’ exposure to high level politics, Michelle may yet find herself carried forward by the roving bands of estrogen who buoyed Hillary and then launched her toward the Senate and beyond. 

If the Democrats win the Presidency, it wouldn’t entirely surprise if after a few years Michelle got her groove back, took on the sainted aura of her husband (peace be upon him), and the country found itself in for something like Hillary 2.0, Rodham Redux.

In that case, peace be upon us.