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.