The idea is circulating in the media that first lady Michelle Obama would make a great running mate for former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, should she choose to run for president in 2016.
A former-first-lady duo in power would be an intriguing concept for scholars who have long discussed the power, and the limitations, of America’s first ladies.
“That would truly be a dream team for America,” former Clinton spokeswoman Karen Finney told the Washington Examiner. “Both women are proven effective leaders who’ve raised children, so dealing with Congress would be a snap!” she added.
Finney’s allusion to Clinton’s and Obama’s child rearing hit on a point often discussed by political scientists—the first lady is presented as an ideal of womanhood, and the political power of the president’s wife has historically been overshadowed by her portrayal as “mom-in-chief,” as Africana studies professor at Cornell University Noliwe Rooks has described Obama.
Michelle Obama’s approval ratings have been consistently higher than her husband’s. But, as Connecticut College Professor Mary Anne Borrelli points out in her book, “The Politics of the President’s Wife”: “These women [first ladies] receive their highest approval ratings when presenting themselves as apolitical and nonpartisan moral guardians.”
In 2008, Obama was portrayed as angry and radical in her views, said Rooks at a panel discussion hosted by Cornell University in October 2012, titled “Thinking Through Michelle Obama: Black Studies and Black Feminism,” according to the university’s website.
Her husband’s presidential campaign reshaped that image: “It was all replaced by an image of mom-in-chief,” Rooks said.
“Being a mom doesn’t give power in the political sphere,” said Cornell University Africana Studies Professor Carol Boyce Davies at the panel discussion.
Clinton as Powerful First Lady Exemplar
Hillary Clinton has shown that a first lady can break the bounds of the position and move on to a successful, independent political career. She was also once bound by the “mom-in-chief” role as first lady.
Lisa M. Burns, Doctor of Philosophy, notes in her University of Maryland dissertation, titled “First Ladies as Political Women: Press Framing of Presidential Wives,” that Clinton was silenced by her husband’s campaign.
“After undergoing an ‘image makeover’ prior to the 1992 Democratic National Convention in order to quell criticism, the ‘new Hillary’ was presented as a ‘more traditional’ political wife … thus containing her influence to traditionally maternal issues,” Burns wrote. This carried through to the 2006 campaign.
Obama has managed to hold to the traditional first lady role by addressing women-centered and private-sphere issues, but she has also reached beyond the customary boundaries to urban and low-income families, said Borrelli.
She notes that Obama has also mastered the conventions of feminine power built into the role of first lady.
“The dress Obama wore when speaking at the recent Democratic Party Convention, for example, was designed by an African American woman designer from Detroit, and it will be sold in retail stores,” wrote Borrelli. “It was a subtle, powerful, strategic statement, a gender performance that epitomized the complexity of this first lady’s politics.”