06.07.12

Michelle Obama Takes the First Ladies’ Version of the Hippocratic Oath

The first lady steps up on the campaign trail and takes care to stay on message, writes Allison Yarrow.

Michelle Obama is back on the stump, giving voters a preview of her campaign persona this year, which seems to be the classic first-lady mix of cheerleader, homemaker, and adoring wife.

“However modernist we become, millions of Americans want the first lady to remain safer, more traditional,” said Gil Troy, McGill University history professor and author of books on first families. “Michelle Obama has read the tea leaves. She does a good job of owning it publicly and clamping down the back chatter about being forced into it.”

Obama’s willingness to hit the trail and play a public role on behalf of her husband was on display Wednesday at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center. There, she rallied hundreds of grassroots supporters, reminding a crowd that needed little convincing of her husband’s accomplishments.

Most of the attendees were women, many in bright suits and tall heels, and African-Americans. They waited in a line that wrapped around the block to enter the center, and once inside, captured video and photos of the remarks with a flurry of camera phones. A pep-rally quality pervaded the event from the many T-shirts printed with the faces of Barack and Michelle to audience members repeating her lines aloud to spontaneous outbursts of “God bless you, Michelle,” “We got your back,” and “It’s alright, Michelle” when she admitted she was “a little biased” when it came to her husband.

Speaking for about 20 minutes, Obama recounted the story of her humble upbringing on the south side of Chicago that many of the supporters there had heard before, but were eager to hear live. Mostly, she recounted her husband’s accomplishments, citing the auto-industry bailout, pay equity, health-care reform, troop withdrawal, and even “bringing to justice” Osama bin Laden. “Barack needs all of you to get out there and tell everyone you know about our values,” she said, suggesting values deeply shared by both the first couple and the room.

The first lady said while her position gives her a front-row view of presidential power and the thorny issues and difficult decisions that come with it, she stressed that the gig was her husband’s.

Video screenshot

“I’ve had the chance to see up close and personal what being the president looks like,” she said. All the decisions that come across your desk are the hard ones. And as president all you have to guide you are your life experiences.”

While Obama has been a presence on the fundraising circuit for the past year, her profile is going up as the campaign season begins in earnest and, not coincidentally, she promotes her new book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, published at the end of May. Her Philadelphia stop marked her third stump speech at a grassroots event in six weeks, with more on the way, including one today in Virginia.

Despite staying carefully on script, even Michelle’s most anodyne remarks have been picked up as talking points by the right. At an event Tuesday with Disney where the company vowed to stop running ads for unhealthy, sugar-packed food and drinks, a brief remark about a local New York City proposal to ban the sale of large, sugary drinks—“We applaud anyone who’s stepping up to think about what changes are working in their communities”—ended up as a Drudge Report headline and a Rush Limbaugh talking point, forcing her office to put out a release clarifying that her remarks didn’t mean the administration would push a national ban.

“There is an understood first ladies’ version of the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm.”

Covering the 2008 election, Big Girls Don’t Cry author Rebecca Traister remembers a fervent, dynamic Michelle on the trail who spoke about the historic nature of her husband’s campaign, and how the outspoken Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer morphed into a mannered, “buttoned-up” supporting role as a wife and mother after right-wing pundits seized on her remarks.

“We have this retro inability to digest the fact that the first lady is likely going to have an intellectual influence over her husband,” said Traister. “Any powerful woman is going to be a threat. This could be a destabilizing issue within the campaign.”

While supporters and voters look to personally identify with candidates, they are increasingly wiser to what were once insider details of retail politics, which means they comprehend the importance of campaign-strategy execution and the players sticking to script.

Speakers who went on before her applauded the first lady’s roles of wife, mother, and inspirer, nodding to her wholesome efforts in the White House, like seeding the White House garden, creating the “Let’s Move Campaign” pinpointing healthy eating and exercise and advocating for military families. “Truth be told, President Obama married up,” said Philadelphia’s district attorney, Seth Williams.

That the first lady’s approval rating bests her husband’s leads The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart to recently compare it to ice cream, to which Michelle retorted, “He’s vegetables,” garnering laughs in line with the very subject of her book, and her push to teach the value of healthy eating to families. One supporter in Philadelphia arrived clutching the gardening book to her chest.

“My hope, wish, and prayer is that she will be able to sign my book,” said 60-year-old retired social worker, Carlita Grazier. She then flipped through the book’s pages, settling on childhood photographs of the first lady and marveling at how much they looked like the Obamas’ daughter Sasha, as if this were an album of her own family rather than the president’s. “She’s very close to her mother,” Grazier said. “I’m close to my mother.”

And yet, with mobile devices, social networks, and reality television that still spreads like an infestation, a look behind the curtain is what many who will vote in November really want to see. Retired floor salesman Steve Sacks put in a plea for the first family to go off-script.

“I wish once in awhile they’d let them go,” he said.

But, with that come risks, said Troy, since the more visible a first lady is, the more she is likely to become politicized and a potential target.

“There is an understood first ladies' version of the Hippocratic oath,” said Troy. “Do no harm. They can have greater potential to do harm than good.”

College administrator Rachelle King, who attended the Constitution Center event, said anyone in the first lady’s position should “be careful of gaffes.”

“People would criticize her if she was too forceful and say she’s trying to overshadow him. She has to keep a balance. That’s Joe Biden’s job to be the attack dog,” she said.