10.07.10

Michelle Obama's Power Trip

Forbes magazine just named the first lady the most powerful woman in the world. Tunku Varadarajan on why that’s an insult to women everywhere.

Forbes magazine recently ran a cover story by rent-a-rant Dinesh D’Souza, asserting that the key to Barack Obama was to regard him as the dangerous political reincarnation of his father, an anti-colonial, socialist Luo tribesman from Kenya. As if in expiation for this lurid essay—the journalistic equivalent of streaking naked down the National Mall—Forbes has just announced that Michelle Obama is the “most powerful woman in the world,” thereby following up a major dissing of the husband with an absurd compliment to the wife.

Actually, to say that Michelle Obama is the most powerful woman in the world is not merely absurd; it is retrograde, and misogynist, a tediously sexist take from the power-behind-the-throne school of political theory (which holds that women can only wield power through husbands and sons). In any case, if true, first-equal should go to Liu Yongquing, except the latter doesn’t go parading around fancy European resorts spending her husband’s book royalties and the taxpayers’ money. One strike against Mrs. Hu Jintao, however, is that there is no evidence that she’s a “forceful advocate for school nutrition,” work for which Forbes doffs its cap at Michelle. (Disclosure: I worked as Opinions editor at Forbes for a year, before leaving amicably to come to The Daily Beast.)

But elite American magazine editors are stricken with a pseudo-imperial hagiographical imperative, and are prone to confuse (or conflate) fame or cachet with power. And whatever it is that Michelle O has—that which Forbes chooses to call “power”—is not intrinsic to her. It comes, entirely, from her marital state. (I am gagging here, somewhat, at having to state the blessedly obvious.) I would have thought that the most “powerful” woman would be the one who had won office herself in the biggest economy available to her: And surely she must be Angela Merkel, the German chancellor: She’s been elected twice by a notoriously fussy electorate, runs a thriving economy—a major world power—and her husband’s an anonymous chemist who has nothing to do with any of it.

What has Michelle Obama, by contrast, done over the past year to merit her accolade? I’d even say that Sarah Palin is a more powerful woman than the first lady: She has the Republican Party dancing to her ditties, has controlled the party primaries like an expert puppeteer, and has put the fear of god into the “testost-erroneous” GOP establishment. Palin has managed to move and shake people in a way that no one (man nor woman) has done in the last few months.

Even if one were to take Forbes’ reckoning at face value, it is almost certainly wrong in its estimation of Michelle Obama’s power. We are all aware that the Obamas have a wonderful marriage, and his uxoriousness is the talk of all the women’s magazines; but is she really influential when it comes to surging in Afghanistan; bombing Iran; and the political haggling over taxes?

More poetically—and this exercise is not without its beguiling side—how do you measure how much power is wielded by the wife of a powerful man? Is it strictly based on how powerful the man is? Or do you try to calculate the incalculable: that is, her sway over him? Given that this is impossible, perhaps such lists should be confined to women who wield measurable power: elected politicians, monarchs, CEOs, generals, etc.

Women in the White House are always lightning rods—some far more deservedly than others. Mary Todd Lincoln was crazy, and took up a lot of oxygen; Eleanor Roosevelt, famously, had her own do-gooding agenda; Nancy Reagan was meddlesome; Barbara Bush was powerful as the matriarch (mother of W), more so than as the president’s wife. But to endow them all with power that they don’t have demonstrably, or that they derive only indirectly through marriage, is male chauvinism, pure and simple.

Women in the White House are always lightning rods. But to endow them all with power that they don’t have demonstrably, or that they derive only indirectly through marriage, is male chauvinism, pure and simple.

Michelle Obama is impressive and beautiful, but in some ways our most boring first lady in memory. I don’t know what she really cares about, as opposed to the diplomatic caring that she’s compelled to do. And Michelle appears to have become much too low-key, even self-effacing, since she became first lady. The Clintons were better at calibrating their intellectual partnership when Bill was in office. But weirdly, Hillary was considered too powerful as a White House Wife. Now that she has real power, as secretary of State, all the conservative commentators who made a fetish of hating her are laying off her. They seem less afraid of her hard power than they were of her soft, behind-the-scenes, wifely power.

My conclusion: Conservative men, including the editors of Forbes, are afraid of women. (P.S. I am a libertarian.)

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)