The first lady of the United States endures a special kind of hell. She’s a prisoner in a gilded cell. Her every move is scrutinized, to say nothing of her hair, her wardrobe and (if she’s Michelle Obama) her muscle tone. She can never walk the dog in her sweats, take her kids to the mall, dress too badly or too well. If she ever had career aspirations of her own, she can forget them. Her job is to shut up, burnish the brand and project an image of wholesome family values and all-American normalcy.
No wonder so many first ladies turn to drink. The effort it must take to maintain that facade of banal ordinariness would drive most of us into the loony bin.
It’s okay with the public if a first lady is accomplished in some way – so long as she’s harmless. Appearing harmless has been a tough assignment for Michelle Obama, who’s obviously strong and obviously combative. Last week, she once again tried to reassure the nation that she’s not an angry black woman – without sounding like an angry black woman. No, no, she insisted. Any hint that she had ever clashed with any of her husband’s White House aides (as suggested in a new book she insists she hasn’t read) was total mischief. “I guess it’s just more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here,” she said sweetly.
In fact, Michelle is not naturally sweet. She’s an Amazon. If you cross her husband, she looks like she’ll deck you. She’s focused, driven and incredibly competitive. She’s so organized she makes her daughters do their homework a day ahead of time. Like her husband, she’s always thought of herself as an outsider, even though she went to Harvard and has led a highly successful yuppie life.
According to the book she hasn’t read (Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas), Michelle was highly critical of many of her husband’s top aides – including Rahm Emanuel, her husband’s scrawny but exceptionally tough chief of staff who left in 2010 to run for mayor of Chicago. She and Mr. Emanuel cordially loathed each other. In his view, she was a nuisance who had no grasp of the grubby but essential game of politics in Washington. In her view, he was a foul-mouthed little twerp who failed to appreciate her husband’s greatness.
Michelle is hardly the first lady who thinks her husband was let down by his advisers. Hillary Clinton loathed Mr. Emanuel, too. Both women were determined not to be ciphers in the White House. And both found that the institution of the presidency is remarkably ill-suited to modern power marriages.
In many ways, the Obamas are a study in contrasts. She’s the confrontational one and the doer. He’s the detached wonk. She thinks you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. He thinks you can get reasonable people to find common ground and agree. (Or at least that’s what he used to think.) He believes the political process is the best way to effect change. She’s far more skeptical.
Barack Obama is a modern dad who has dinner with his kids most nights and coaches his daughter’s basketball team. Yet, there was never any doubt about whose ambitions and career came first. Both Michelle and her husband believe he is a great man, a transformational figure who transcends politics. They have a low opinion of reporters, and often feel he’s deeply misunderstood. Both believe that his chief drawback, if he has one, is that he isn’t mean and tough and cynical enough for Washington.
At first, Michelle chafed at restrictions of the White House. But she’s mellowed. She’s discovered that being one of the most admired and powerful women in the world (even though her power is totally derived from her husband) is not all bad. She’s determined that her work on childhood obesity – which, like all first lady causes, is worthwhile while also being harmless – will be more than “just another first lady initiative.” The outsider is now the quintessential insider. And the gilded cell is not so bad.