Since her ascendancy as the unelected female leader of the land, Michelle Obama has traded her guise of power lawyer in for one of hip agrarian, with an organic garden and enough floral-print dresses to thrill even Lady Bird Johnson.
Her policy issues, as opposed to her garden time, are rarely ground-breaking. Her work is so traditional and family focused, and her platform so neutral, that most opponents resort to criticizing her wardrobe (see: splotchy dress, oil-spill attire).
This approach is effective; polls this past week showed that Mrs. Obama continues to rise in popularity, while, like a seesaw, President Obama’s numbers slip even lower. This shift does not mean that Mrs. Obama’s policies are successful; she has no policies. Instead, it signals that Mr. Obama is vulnerable.
Americans are already spooked by a President who is sagging in popularity, struggling to deliver on the most basic elements of his platform, from Guantanamo to the environment. With the exception of a few issues, in the past 16 months Mrs. Obama has deliberately shown no designs on power. She has studiously avoided controversy, and made no demands for a West Wing office she can decorate with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, à la Hillary.
Instead, Michelle Obama seems to be challenging Laura Bush to a June Cleaver-off; whoever makes the best meatloaf wins. While a lot of women are left wondering why a Harvard-educated feminist is content to wear the apron, the polls prove she’s smart to leave the knives in the kitchen drawer.
Even her scandals have been rather bland, and mostly sartorial. In January, PETA fabricated a First Lady "endorsement" for their campaigns and was forced by the White House to recant. On a trip to Moscow, Mrs. Obama carried an evening bag by VBH that the company said cost nearly $6,000; Mrs. Obama’s office countered that it was a mere grand (a still astronomical sum, which no one in the media seemed to notice).
Unlike Nancy Reagan and the fiascos over her designer wardrobe at the height of the ’80s recession, Mrs. Obama’s fashion sense is cagey, if not Teflon-inspired. For every pair of $500 Lanvin sneakers she wears to a soup kitchen, she does a press conference in an off-the-rack Talbots suit. You can’t point at her $3,500 Jason Wu dress without noticing an $89.99 J.Crew cardigan. She practices strict fashion equality.
Despite the fact that she’s a First Lady that doesn’t make waves, Mrs. Obama’s popularity also owes something to her husband’s political struggles, as well as her own calm seas. The equation goes something like this: If a President is unpopular, the First Lady is more likely to be popular (Laura Bush, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford). It’s as if Americans can’t stand to completely find fault with an administration. We’re a nice people, after all, and we like to discover the redeeming qualities in folks.
The First Lady is the bright yang to a failing President’s yin, an opportunity to exercise respect for the office of the President without endorsing that same President’s policies.
This is especially true for the party in power, grasping at a reason—any reason—to keep loving their guy on the skids. Mrs. Obama’s high ratings reflect the changing views of the electorate toward her husband. Among both Democrats and hopeful independents, she rates more highly than the President.
The estimation of a First Lady’s success is often measured as much by what she doesn’t do, as what she does, and Mrs. Obama has learned that lesson already. When she rolled out her first platform this year, a program to combat childhood obesity, responses became predictably anorexic when she cited the health of her own daughters as evidence of the importance of government intervention.
Learning her lesson, Mrs. Obama has mostly returned to ship christenings and inspirational commencement speeches, and aside from play-by-play fashion analysis that makes ESPN look like amateur hour, receives little serious press coverage.
While doing nothing may look rather easy, it isn’t. Mrs. Obama is a successful, educated, and opinionated woman. There’s no reason to believe she wouldn’t like to abandon kitchen and carpool, if only the time were right. Some past bearers of the First Lady title have been tempted to compare the value of their highly public, second place seat to Vice President John Nance Garner’s summary of his job; he claimed the Vice Presidency wasn’t "worth a bucket of warm spit."
Certainly Hillary Clinton agreed with the sentiment, though not the estimation of the Vice Presidency (somewhere, Al Gore is still twitching at the mention of her name). Pat Nixon lamented that "being First Lady is the hardest unpaid job in the world." Mrs. Obama would probably agree; her only faulty step so far has been having an opinion.
Mrs. Obama’s fame is merely evidence that she has done nothing to threaten voters, simply because she has really done nothing. Winning the popularity poll isn’t the same as actually winning the contest; everybody loves Miss Congeniality, but she’s not the one who goes home with the crown.
Right now, Mrs. Obama’s reputation is just a consolation prize. But when Michelle Obama starts taking risks and building a strong platform of her own, watch out. Mr. Obama will be back on top.