11.13.09

Why Michelle Is Sliding

As the first lady wades into the health-care debate, she’s grappling with an 11-point drop in the polls. Linda Hirshman on why being first lady is harder than ever.

Party giver Michelle Obama snagged the White House East Room for her soiree this afternoon. Of course she was entertaining a bunch of older women who had sad stories about their trouble getting health insurance, just as the polling shows that older women aren’t so sure about her husband’s health plan. As three women of a certain age told stories of bad insurance and getting caught in the Medicare “doughnut hole,” the first lady pitched the group, which included the head of the senior lobby AARP, assurances that, contrary to the “misinformation” around, her “husband . . . will protect Medicare . . with health insurance reform.” Whew, hello Hillary!

Just like regular politics, red and blue gender politics can’t be magically wished away, not even by the Obamas. And the gender challenges of being a first lady, 40 years after feminism, are darn near insurmountable.

Despite the clear lesson from Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated venture, health care is a siren song for any first lady—because it looks like such a womanly thing. Taking care of sick people, especially sick children, fits perfectly into a traditional female caregiver role. But it’s a trap. Health care is big, big business—15 percent of the economy, some say. Big insurers, Big Pharma, the AMA, big boys play health care. And as the tea bag summer went by, the political stakes got unimaginably high, too. As Michelle Obama turned her attention from healthy veggies to pre-existing conditions, pundits speculate that the “fall” in her approval ratings—from a high of 72 to 61 percent in the latest Gallup poll—may indeed be due to her venture into the politics of health care.

But theories about her dwindling appeal abound. Maybe she’s not too blue but too red: The mom-in-chief thing has gotten really old as the economy tanks and the president plays basketball with the boys. We know there’s a Harvard law degree in there somewhere; why is she appearing with kitty ears and Halloween treats?

Six months ago, all the first lady coverage was a just-right purply hue. What happened? The obvious answer is that everything was never just right. Just like regular politics, red and blue gender politics can’t be magically wished away, not even by the Obamas. And the gender challenges of being a first lady, 40 years after feminism, are darn near insurmountable.

A quick learner, Michelle Obama found out during the campaign that she’d be better off seen than heard. When asked what she’d do in case of the dreaded 3 a.m. emergency phone call, she answered that she’d hand the phone to Barack and go back to sleep. The more she embodied a conservative concept of “ladyship,” the more the most vocal parts of the country, especially the media, liked her. Why, they even compared her to the sainted Jacqueline Kennedy.

In retrospect, it is clear that the Jackie references were more about the desire to turn the clock of gender relations back to 1960 than the merits of simple shift dresses. Talk of Jackie immediately invokes the memory of Mrs. Kennedy’s iconic 1962 television tour of the White House she’d expensively redone in her artsy and aristocratic taste. The extravagance of her White House makeover, the whispery baby voice she used in the interview, her tolerance of the president’s legendary womanizing, and her ultimate sanctification of his memory after his tragic death made Jackie the first lady a perfect symbol of a bygone era.

What’s weird is that Michelle Obama, Princeton B.A., Harvard J.D., looks, on paper, more like Hillary Clinton, Wellesley B.A., Yale J.D., than Jacqueline Kennedy or Betty Draper. Having worked outside the home for 20 years, while raising her children, she also looks more like the majority of American women than the version that emerged from the campaign. The “just right” porridge Michelle Obama was delivering didn’t fit with her own résumé or the experience of most of the women watching.

It wasn’t a happy compromise that would enable us all to get along in a purply haze of bipartisanship, but, rather, like the role of first lady itself, an anachronistic holdover from an earlier era of gender relations, more honored in the breach, as the saying goes, than the observance. (When The New York Times’ Lisa Belkin reported on rich Princeton alumnae’s inclination to quit their jobs and tend the home fires as a model of the new face of the feminist revolution, she met with a firestorm of protest that her subjects bore no resemblance to the experience of most American women.)

It is of course possible that, like Belkin’s other Princeton women, Michelle Obama was glad to opt out and play the stay-at-home mom in the nicest possible home. Right after the inauguration, Chicago magazine ran a tell-all story about how the first lady used to nag her husband to give up politics for a lucrative law job so she could stay home. And those were $500 sneakers she sported at a food-bank event. If so, then her venture into health care is a self-inflicted wound. She can act out the opt-out revolution and be as meaninglessly popular as that other stay-at-home mom, Laura Bush.

But, like all the women who live and work like Hillary but dream of Jackie, the story keeps cracking. How could she be the brilliant equal “partner” in the Obama family narrative, and also the whispery Jackie Kennedy or the magnolia-scented librarian Laura Bush? Sure, anyone’s entitled to dress up for Halloween, but you didn’t see Barack in some stupid rabbit ears. He was just his usual cool self in a great crewneck sweater. Like so much of the Obama post-ideological scenario, the Harvard-educated Mom-in-Chief First Ladyship was flawed at the root.

And, like all women’s decisions to live on the strength of their husbands’ decisions, it was also risky. His approval ratings fell. Hers fell. That’s the deal. Insofar as her success depends on his success, just as her income does, if he falls, she falls. Repeat after me: Elizabeth Edwards. Silda Spitzer. Ruth Madoff. Why they could make a TV show out of it. Oh, wait, they already have.

Linda Hirshman is a retired professor of philosophy. She is the author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, and a columnist at DoubleX.com. She is writing a book about the gay revolution.