Michelle Obama Is Reveling in Her Lame-Duck Status as First Lady
Michelle Obama, ambivalent and buttoned up in her first term, is finally free, says Michelle Cottle.
“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”
OK. Maybe those were not Michelle Obama’s exact words to the LGBT activist who disrupted her speech at a private DNC fundraiser last Tuesday. If, indeed, one insists on being a stickler about it, Mobama’s response was more along the lines of, “One of the things that I don’t do well is this!”
Still, Howard Beale would have been impressed. Whatever points heckler Ellen Sturtz was looking to score, the first lady was not playing. Her voice grew loud and defiant as she came out from behind the podium and got all up in Sturtz’s business. Then she gave the woman a choice: either shut the hell up, or I’m outta here.
Such is the cathartic potential of a first lady’s second term—particularly this first lady’s.
Michelle Obama has never made secret her ambivalence about life in the White House. Sure, it’s swell that Barack could make history and push for a finer, fairer America. (And the Jason Wu frocks are to die for.) But the rest of it—the personal attacks, the media scrutiny, the Secret Service agents lurking about on date night—it all gets old pretty fast, especially considering that Michelle was never much into the role to begin with. “Everyone knows that she was pretty much talked into her husband’s running,” observes Myra Gutin, a communications professor and first-lady historian at Rider University.
So while second terms typically provide an additional measure of freedom to first ladies—they’re more comfortable in the job, the public is more comfortable with them, they can finally stop worrying about getting their men elected to this or that office—Michelle Obama seems to be taking extra pleasure in her lame-duck status.
It’s not just a question of sticking it to mouthy activists. Since November, the first lady has ventured into tricky policy territory, including her teary plea for gun control back in April and her Twitter shout-out to NBA player Jason Collins following his coming out. (“This is a huge step forward for our country. We’ve got your back!”) On the other hand, she skipped out on last week’s summit with China’s new first family, despite the international eyebrows raised and the wave of stories about how she had “snubbed” her Chinese counterpart, Peng Liyuan.
Along the way, she’s having herself a bit of fun. In late February, she showed off some sick moves in her “Evolution of Mom Dancing” skit on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, alongside Fallon in his mom wig and baby-pink cardigan. A couple of days later, she got all dolled up in a sleeveless, silvery Naeem Khan number and appeared at the Oscars via video feed, flanked by uniformed military-service members, no less, to announce the winner for Best Picture. Not only did the move prompt grumbling among the Obamas’ domestic political opponents, but Michelle’s gown so scandalized the Iranian press that it digitally added in sleeves and a higher neckline.
But nothing has provoked quite the response of Mobama’s handling of her heckler. Some folks cheered her moxie. Other slammed her arrogance. Displaying his usual gift for understatement, Glenn Beck called her “a monster.” But most agree that FLOTUS appears to be shucking off some of the constraints of her office—even as some warn her against letting the newfound freedom go to her head.
“Of course you’re more comfortable in the job,” says Anita McBride, former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush and now head of American University’s program on the legacies of American first ladies. Nevertheless, McBride asserts, there is both pressure on and expectation for the first lady “to be the person who rises above it all, to not take the bait even when someone challenges you.”
While some would argue that it’s unfair to expect first ladies to smile and bite their tongue and play nice with—or at least ignore—those who are attacking them, McBride insists that criticism simply “comes with the territory” and that dealing with it is a key part of the job. “Your reaction is important.”
For her part, Gutin praises Obama’s handling of the heckler, observing that thus far she has been notably cautious about “not stepping into anything” during her tenure and stressing that second terms indeed allow first ladies the latitude “to do more things and be a little edgier if they really want to.” Gutin does, however, sound a cautionary note: “As always, the first lady does not want to become the news cycle. She does not want to say something or do something that will require her husband to spend political capital to clean up after her.”
And there is, of course, always the question of her legacy. “You are allowed to do anything you want in the job,” says McBride. “The question is, ‘What do you want to be remembered for?’”
In light of today’s toxic political climate, doing the Dougie with Jimmy Fallon might not be such a bad goal.