Washington | Michelle’s Extreme Makeover

America’s obsession with the first lady is anything but superficial

First Lady Michelle Obama has shunned the dowdy middle-aged outfits worn by her predecessors © OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO
Elections 2024
01 May, 2010

When Michelle Obama showed up on the cover of another major magazine earlier this spring, she wasn’t showing off her well-toned arms or showcasing her great sense of style. This time, it was a Newsweek interview about the issue she hopes will define her legacy as First Lady, her Let’s Move! initiative against child obesity. Many Michelle-watchers were disappointed that she waited more than a year into Barack Obama’s presidency to delve into a substantive issue herself. After all, Mrs Obama is no intellectual slouch: educated at Princeton and Harvard Law School, with a successful career behind her in law and the public sector, and strong opinions about many issues. In fact, all of that helps explain why she waited so long to make her first foray into policy.

The wife of an American president has no official role but they are expected to be a gracious hostess and role model. A first lady who tries to be more than that can be a lightning rod for criticism. Until now, Michelle Obama has kept her ideas about policy to herself, or shared them with her husband only in private. Even now, she’s picked her issue carefully: children and health are uncontroversial. Nevertheless, she’s used Let’s Move to address more controversial topics like race and poverty. She’s frequently mentioned that disproportionate numbers of black and Hispanic children are overweight, and have health issues leading to diabetes. She’s taken up a campaign to bring decent grocery stores to so-called ‘food deserts,’ the poor neighbourhoods where residents cannot access healthy food.

Mrs Obama is trying to learn from her predecessor. During Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s, Hillary Rodham Clinton jumped into a major policy initiative, healthcare, and it backfired. Mrs Clinton wanted to present herself as the face of the liberated woman, but instead she isolated many voters by disparaging women who “stay home and bake cookies,” which many saw as hostile to traditional values. As the first African-American woman in the White House, Mrs Obama needs to be especially vigilant about her image; voters may have ushered a black family into the White House, but racism is hardly dead.

Mrs Obama is charismatic and intelligent, but during the 2008 presidential campaign, she seemed more a liability than an asset. When she said that her husband’s candidacy was “the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country,” some thought the gaffe could cost Barack Obama the presidency. Critics painted her as unpatriotic, and said she harboured racial anger and subscribed to radical views.  One conservative columnist called her “his bitter half.” Fewer than 50 percent of Americans had a favourable opinion of her.

The Obama campaign set about giving her an image makeover. They planned a series of appearances to ‘soften’ her physical appearance and her public style, which sometimes seemed aggressive or sharp. Her statements were carefully screened and scripted; her photo-ops and events were calibrated to show her family-oriented side, rather than her professional identity. When Mrs Obama appeared on the women’s daytime talk show The View in June 2008, she came across as light-hearted and open-minded. She also dressed the part, wearing a casual sundress which, she made sure to inform the audience, was from an inexpensive clothing line. With that reference, Mrs Obama went a long way toward achieving what every American politician strives to do—make herself accessible to middle-class Americans, who want to feel like their leaders are ‘one of them.’

Mrs Obama’s transformation into everywoman is one of the most remarkable re-branding efforts in recent American political history. Women all over the US call her Michelle, as though they are on a first-name basis with the president’s wife. Her approval ratings stand at 71 percent, according to the latest Pew Research Center poll, higher than her husband’s. She’s also more popular than either of her immediate predecessors, Laura Bush or Hillary Clinton, during their first years in the White House.

Mrs Obama has continued to use her wardrobe to craft a likeable public image. But it’s not just an architected public persona. Michelle Obama is herself in front of the cameras—she’s just figured out a way to make it marketable and unthreatening. The clothes she wears describe a very different first lady from those before her: a confident, independent, fashionable African-American woman. Mrs Obama posed for her official White House portrait in a sleeveless dress, even though it sparked controversy to display her bare arms. She shuns the pastel-coloured business suits traditionally favoured by first ladies, choosing instead affordable, off-the-rack, sporty clothes as well as designer outfits suited to her very individual sense of style. She’s appeared on the cover of almost every glossy magazine in the last year. Books like Michelle Style: Celebrating the First Lady of Fashion and Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy have proliferated; blogs chronicle her every outfit.

The obsession with what Michelle is wearing disturbs some commentators, but it isn’t as superficial as it seems. Michelle Obama has a confidence that few women of earlier generations had, and it is reflected in her bold and individual fashion sense.  Her wardrobe choices send a message that she is a modern professional and an ambitious working woman as well as a mother; they are light and airy, which makes her appealing, rather than intimidating, as Hillary Clinton often seemed. In Michelle Obama, women see a new message. This is the post-feminist era, she tells us: women don’t have to be either an angry feminist refusing to bake cookies, or a bored stay-at-home mom doing nothing other than baking cookies. In the world as Michelle Obama envisions it, a black woman can refuse to don dowdy outfits and still be married to the most powerful man in the country. They can love clothes and look good; and still expect to be taken seriously when they address major policy issues.