What makes Michelle Obama different from other first ladies?


Americans presidents often go through rocky periods and face withering criticisms. But you have to give their spouses credit that they have managed to avoid any public scandals. The first ladies have an excellent record of not doing anything to embarrass the country they represent, often being held in higher esteem than their husbands.

Partly this is because they have greater discretion on what they do in public and have focused their attention on worthy and uncontroversial projects. Even those first ladies who took a more active role in their husband’s policies (such as Rosalyn Carter and Hillary Clinton) got criticized for not staying sufficiently in the background, not because they did anything wrong.

I think that Michelle Obama has been an exemplar of that tradition, with her healthy food initiative being a particularly good example of a project that is worthy, relevant, and yet uncontroversial. I cannot think of a single thing that she has actually done that might cause her to be compared negatively with her predecessors. In fact, she has carried herself with poise, dignity, and good humor even when she has been in casual unscripted settings and has not said or done anything that might reflect negatively on her or her husband.

Hence I was startled by this short interview that NPR’s Ari Shapiro had with a woman who attended an American Legion convention. Bobbie Lucier said of the Obamas, “I just – I don’t like him. Can’t stand to look at him. I don’t like his wife. She’s far from the first lady. It’s about time we get a first lady in there that acts like a first lady and looks like a first lady.”

There is something clearly different about the Obamas, especially Michelle, that disgusts this woman and makes her feel that they are different, and far worse, from those who came before. But I can’t quite put my finger on it. I wonder what it could be?

Too bad Shapiro did not ask her because it would seem like an obvious follow-up question. Or maybe he did ask and did not want to report her answer.

Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    I cannot think of a single thing that she has actually done that might cause her to be compared negatively with her predecessors.

    You mean, other than being born black?

  2. carolw says

    I’m pretty sure that’s it. I’ve talked to some older folks here in the south, and they can’t seem to get over that. It’s so stupid. I feel like I’ve warped to 1956 or something.

  3. leni says

    I heard that segment too, but I’m not sure a follow up question was necessary since it was pretty obvious what she meant. Michelle Obama doesn’t “look” like a First Lady, despite the fact that she was frequently, and usually positively, compared to Jackie O. If being compared favorably to Jacki O. isn’t good enough, nothing is.

    It didn’t really need much embellishment or explanation, but I suppose it might have been amusing to hear the woman try to worm her way out of it.

    Or maybe it’s just that she has well-toned arms. I bet that’s it.

  4. left0ver1under says

    Or maybe it’s just that she has well-toned arms. I bet that’s it.

    That’s something I would have said if you hadn’t. MO actually looks fit and athletic, the first First Lady who actually does. Every other one before her looked like the old expected form, stay-at-home moms who have never exercised in their lives or at least, since they were teenagers or in college (e.g. Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton).

    If MO is going to encourage people to eat healthy and exercise, it doesn’t that she looks the part. Those who are against healthy eating and exercise also look the part.

  5. says

    I think that Michelle Obama has been an exemplar of that tradition, with her healthy food initiative being a particularly good example of a project that is worthy, relevant, and yet uncontroversial

    it is controversial, especially with size acceptance activists/eating disorder awareness activists. Her program isn’t for healthy foods so much as it is against obese children. The goal of her initiative is specifically to eliminate childhood obesity, rather than to promote healthy habits regardless of size. She says that the “cure” for obesity is known already, despite all evidence to the contrary. There isn’t the possibility of a healthy fat kid in her world, but they certainly exist. What message do they get from her campaign?

    Social stigma against fat people is a real problem with real consequences (like lack of employment, harassment, and lack of medical care). She is feeding into public perceptions of fat people that paint them as morally flawed for being bigger than other people.

    http://danceswithfat.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/michelle-obama-what-are-you-thinking/

  6. Frank says

    I also heard this piece, and ended up yelling at my car radio “Ask why she doesn’t look like a first lady!”

    I’ve been puzzled by the level of disgust Mrs Obama evokes in some people. In the 1990s, I think there was an undercurrent “a woman needs to know her place” in conservative circles regarding Mrs Clinton. As disgusting as this sentiment is, I don’t see how it can be used against Mrs Obama. And the “angry black woman” caricature that some tried use in 2008 has not been borne out in her time as first lady.

    As someone in a committed “one man, one woman” marriage raising two daughters, doesn’t she represent the ideal that conservatives love to talk about? As much as I hate to think it, it seems that racism is still alive and well.

  7. says

    In my recent Cold-War-movements-and-repression reading jag, I’ve seen several references to the American Legion working in cahoots with the FBI against social justice activists. They’re a rightwing, racist* organization with a theocratic agenda.

    *It’s neat that the SPLC has Pharyngula in its blogroll. Too bad it’s the Sb URL.

  8. says

    On the other hand . . .

    Michelle Obama was on Live with Kelly not too long ago, when they had a really good double dutch jump-rope team (white kids) on. The looks on their faces when she walked out! My point is that the younger generation is (mostly) being raised without these prejudices. Unfortunately, we still have to put up with the remaining racists.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgqvfWEsaKg]

  9. Mano Singham says

    Thanks for that clip! It was great and you are right, the expression on those children’s faces was wonderful to see.

    It was also nice to see Bryant Gumbel again. I had wondered what happened to him. He was one of the better news/talk show hosts on TV and then seemed to disappear.

  10. astro says

    So Americans have a disproportionate number of people with eating disorders compared to the rest of the world? I get that poorer people can only afford cheaper, less nutritious, hier calorie food, but there is a huge number of the population that can afford to et better and feed their kids better who don’t.

  11. astro says

    Et tu? NPR? The excuse that the interviewer had to go interview someone else is BS. The soundbite generated from this woman’s potential response would have been media gold

  12. Corvus illustris says

    In my recent Cold-War-movements-and-repression reading jag, I’ve seen several references to the American Legion working in cahoots with the FBI against social justice activists.

    To us members of the keep-off-my-lawn generation, this is naturally not news. Professional patriots were dedicated to keeping the lower orders in their place–anti-communism, you know. In the presence of a maternal uncle who was a member, I usually referred to the AL as the Stahlhelm (after the post-WW1 German organization of similar character).

  13. Maverick says

    What? No! It’s because…um…because “Obama” has more vowels than consonants. That’s extremely improper and aesthetically displeasing. They should be ashamed. Now Lincoln, that was great: 2 vowels and 5 consonants.

    That you overlooked this obvious flaw in the Obamas and immediately played the race card is very…reasonable.

    (Though to be honest, I think this is probably less racism than extreme partisanship. They could probably be as white as the Moon and be as denigrated.)

  14. Frank says

    Agreed. Mr Shapiro claims he was running to the Romney speech. He didn’t have to tape it–it was being fed on live broadcast television. I suspect this is another case of NPR being afraid of being labeled “left wing” by reporting how some Republicans actually think.

    The fact that NPR is still among the better news organizations around is a sad assessment of the Fourth Estate.

  15. Sethra says

    I get that poorer people can only afford cheaper, less nutritious, hier calorie food, but there is a huge number of the population that can afford to et better and feed their kids better who don’t.

    It’s not just that, they’re being told to follow that food pyramid thing as well. Eating so much processed grain/corn isn’t good for anyone, and neither is using skim milk. Our bodies can’t break these down properly, but they’re considered “healthy” foods. People are also told it’s ok to drink diet soda, but artificial sweeteners trick our bodies and mess up our blood sugar – making it difficult to lose weight. There’s also the fact that so many additives are put in the food down there, and the companies producing that crap either don’t inform people about what they’re consuming or they keep changing the names of the additives so you’re never quite sure what’s in it. When you can’t even buy plain, raw meat without finding out it has unhealthy additives or filler in it, then there’s a huge problem with the entire system.

    If you’re told that certain things are healthy and eat them and then either maintain weight or gain weight, you may be following the ‘right’ advice, but it’s wrong for your body. That doesn’t make someone incompetent – it may make them ignorant, but people can learn what works best for them and fix that. Unfortunately, they won’t necessarily figure out they need to try something different if standard nutrition advice remains the same.

    At least doctors in the US finally figured out that healthy fats (mono-unsaturated, etc.) are kinda necessary for the human body to operate properly and process calories efficiently – they’re finally catching up with the rest of the world there.

  16. Henry Gale says

    If I remember correctly, Mrs. Obama was on the Ellen Show recently and she dropped down and had a pushup challenge with Ellen.

    I think there has been a few of these types of activities. While I don’t agree, to some doing pushups on national tv may not be in line with the ‘dignity’ of the office of the First Lady. Also, some may not like the constantly bare arms of Mrs. Obama’s wardrobe.

  17. Mano Singham says

    Ok, I admit that I am a little (actually a lot) out of it when it comes to fashion trends but what exactly is the problem with bare arms? Is there some fashion rule that says bare arms for women are somehow déclassé?

    Maybe because I grew up in a tropical country where women routinely wore sleeveless blouses and dresses, I just do not see it as something out of the ordinary or even worth commenting on.

  18. Chiroptera says

    I grew up in the US. I grew up in a northern, cold state. And I will tell you that no one really cares about bare arms; I have never heard of it being a problem before.

    This is just another desperate “let’s find anything to criticize the Obamas, no matter how ridiculous it looks to normal people” attempt to find some fault to add to the list of ridiculous charges against a President that one irrationally hates.

  19. Anonymouse says

    The right are completely unhinged about the Obamas. I had lunch today with a friend who just got some distressing news about a former neighbor who is dying of cancer, leaving behind a young child. When she called her mother to pass on the sad news, her (white, elderly) mother burst out, “It’s better that she doesn’t have to live in a world where a n***er is the president.” The woman truly believes this.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Mano Singham writes: Hence I was startled by this short interview that NPR’s Ari Shapiro had with a woman who attended an American Legion convention. Bobbie Lucier said of the Obamas, “I just – I don’t like him. Can’t stand to look at him. I don’t like his wife. She’s far from the first lady. It’s about time we get a first lady in there that acts like a first lady and looks like a first lady.” […]

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