Michelle Obama: The People's President

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Barack may have won over the minds of the American electorate but it was Michelle who stole their hearts. Stylist examines how Michelle Obama became a political powerhouse

Barack Obama may be the ‘official’ president of the US but it’s his wife Michelle who takes the title of the ‘people’s president’. The consensus following this month’s US election is that it was Mrs Obama who swung the vote in her husband’s favour. Using her honest, heartfelt testimonials and canny instinct on the issues crucial to America, she slammed home the message that her husband was fighting for the greater good. Her 4 September speech to the Democratic National Convention (DNC), delivered with brimming eyes and a voice catching with emotion, was so beautifully given and so void of cynicism, audience members wept where they stood and political commentators declared the election’s outcome was sealed.

She spoke of the “unconditional love and unflinching sacrifice” of families for their young when talking about both her and Barack’s upbringing, of how “hard you work matters more than how much you make” and how she’s realised that “being president doesn’t change who you are […] it reveals who you are.”

Over the past four years, Michelle Obama has proven herself to be a gifted communicator, an impassioned campaigner and an incredibly empathetic public figure, capable of reading the mood of voters. Add to that her formidable intellect (she’s a Princeton and Harvard Law School graduate) and it’s no wonder that US magazine Bloomberg Businessweek declared her Barack’s “secret weapon” estimating that she was worth $5.1million (£3.2million) in fundraising to his presidential campaign.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Michelle Obama has never inferred she’s interested in taking on a political role. She has no policies (if you discount her ‘Let’s Move!’ childhood obesity campaign) and her respective past jobs as associate dean and director of large private institutions such as the University of Chicago and University of Chicago Hospital mark her out as someone that’s certainly geared for high office, but behind the scenes not on the global stage.

Yet, there’s no denying she has forged a political persona which leaders the world over would give their right arm for. Traditionally, the First Lady role is there to humanise their husbands and soften up female voters. Michelle Obama does this and so much more besides.

As a woman who came from humble beginnings (her father worked as a pump operator for Chicago’s Water Department, her mother as a secretary) she knows how to speak to ordinary people. Her house may have 35 bathrooms but she’s still a working mother raising two girls. Similarly, her ability to connect with an audience, convey heartfelt emotion and stand aloft from partisan politics has been known to woo even the most ardent Republican.

But it’s been an evolution. Even before Barack first took office, such was the strength of her advocacy in her husband’s policies, taunts of her being an “angry black woman” found their way into the press. But she proved herself more clever than her detractors. By appealing to people’s better selves, by refusing to be called on the Republican machine, she’s become a potent force in her own right.

Even during her husband’s lowest ebbs in power, her favourability rating peaked at 71% in January 2010 and stuck at 66% last May – 14% higher than Barack’s. During Barack’s first campaign, Michelle won the nickname ‘The Closer’ for persuading swing voters to choose Democrat. This time around she’s been billed as the motivator, energising the campaign by turning up at fundraisers, promoting her husband’s initiatives and charming the opposition. And then there’s what the rest of the world sees. A devoted wife, a brilliant mother and a canny career woman. We asked three US writers to discuss the greatest strengths of the people’s president.

Michelle as an orator by Marin Cogan, political correspondent at GQ (US)

“On the Friday before the United States re-elected her husband to a second term, I stood in the back of a gymnasium at Virginia State University, a historically African American college near Petersburg, Virginia, waiting for the First Lady to speak.

Petersburg was a key battleground during the American Civil War, and, 150 years later, it served as a crucial battleground in the re-election campaign of the nation’s first mixed race president. The day before Michelle Obama spoke, Republican nominee Mitt Romney campaigned just miles away; the day after, his vice-presidential nominee came asking for votes.

It is telling, though not the least bit surprising, that the Obama campaign sandwiched the First Lady between the two top contenders from the other party in one of the most hotly contested swing states on the final weekend of the campaign. One of the more curious developments of the modern American presidential campaign is that the candidate’s spouse is now expected to be an equal partner on the campaign trail, though she is offered no salary and no formalised role for her efforts.

Luckily for her husband and her party, Michelle Obama is one of the country’s most gifted political orators, a master of her husband’s narrative and purveyor of a love story that makes their Democratic fan base swoon. Her ability to make public policy arguments for the administration – from expanding healthcare coverage to increasing student loan funding to protecting reproductive rights – were essential this year in a campaign that was fought, much to everyone’s surprise, over women’s rights with women’s voices and women’s votes.

But perhaps more crucial were the First Lady’s gifts as a crafter of her husband’s public image. Over the last four years, Michelle Obama won the affection of the public as an American role model in her own right: born into humble beginnings, she became a Harvard-educated lawyer and loving mother committed to a meaningful life of her own, outside of her husband’s career. As he has confronted the realities of government, it has been Michelle who has grounded him and reminded us of his core convictions, connecting with audiences with a level of passion and empathy that often seems to elude him.

At the Virginia rally, she told the largely young, largely female audience about falling for her husband 23 years ago. ‘Let me tell you what really made me fall in love with Barack all those years ago: it was his character […], his compassion, his conviction, his commitment to helping others.’” The crowd went absolutely crazy for her. But it was her speech at the DNC which offered a lesson in how to use empathy to sell a political vision. She told stories of her father and the president’s grandmother. She established them as the working-class American heroes who comprise every family’s story – so that, by the time she got round to discussing healthcare and student loans, she was not just talking about policy but issues that had affected the families of everyone in the audience.

All the while, she spoke of Barack as a man who sits at the dinner table with his daughters almost every night and who stays up late reading letters sent to the White House. Many were drying their eyes.”

Michelle as a Campaigner by DR Myra G Gutin, author of The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the 20th Century

“A historian has written that being First Lady is the most difficult, unpaid job in America. Michelle Obama, who is completing her first term in this position, has served with grace and good humour, and made it look easy. The American First Lady has no job description, but fulfils ceremonial, political and advocacy roles.

Mrs Obama initially found the political role to be especially challenging. She hadto be persuaded that her husband should run for the presidency. Even after she gave her approval (allegedly when he agreed to stop smoking), she was a somewhat reluctant campaigner. When her husband won a presidential primary election she told an audience that, “For the first time in my adult life, I’m proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.”

Many people focused only on the first part of the statement, and Mrs Obama spent days explaining her comment. The controversy contributed to negative ratings for the candidate’s wife. Later, she was able to repair the damage when she appeared on television programme The View and dispelled any further concerns during her speech to the DNC. On the campaign trail she seemed cautious, though over time she became more comfortable and audiences received her warmly. Her years as First Lady have been free of the gaffes that have plagued some of her predecessors. Her White House initiative, Let’s Move!, a programme encouraging healthy eating and exercise, has been tremendously successful.

Mrs Obama wrote a book American Grown, about the White House kitchen garden that she planted to encourage growing and cooking with fresh produce. In addition, her support of military families sensitised people to the problems faced by the loved ones of those who serve. For the last 12 months, much of Mrs Obama’s time has been devoted to her husband’s re-election. As one of the most popular democrats in the country – she is more popular than her husband scoring 69% in approval ratings to his 50% – she travelled the country, raising funds for Barack’s presidential bid and speaking to audiences about why he deserved to be returned to the White House.

Mrs Obama complemented her husband’s efforts; while he spoke about the economy, job creation, the federal deficit and the war in Afghanistan, she underlined his strength and commitment to improving the lives of American citizens. Four years of being on the national stage made her more natural and outgoing this year. She was warm and relaxed with audiences. She appeared on television shows and communicated with supporters through Facebook and Twitter.

Her speech at the 2012 DNC will be remembered as one of the best speeches by an American First Lady. After enumerating her husband’s goals she said, ‘He’ll achieve these goals the same way he always has, by bringing us together and reminding us how much we share and how alike we truly are. You see, Barack doesn’t care where you’re from, or what your background is, or what party – if any – you belong to. That’s not how he sees the world. He knows that thread that connects us is strong enough to hold us together when we disagree.’

She continued to repeat this theme throughout the campaign. Michelle Obama has evolved into the campaigner who humanised the presidential nominee and carried Obama’s message to the country. She was an invaluable asset.”

Michelle as a Mother By Krissah Thompson, writer at the Washington Post

“Last year, I was standing in a scrum of reporters and photographers documenting the every move of First Lady Michelle Obama as she toured South Africa on a major diplomatic tour. She had chosen to take along her two daughters, a teenage niece and nephew making it a family trip.

Near the end of their travels, the First Lady entered an empty soccer stadium in Cape Town, where she met the friendly former Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was effusive and excited. From a few feet away, I listened in on their conversation: ‘What do you feel?’ and ‘How are you feeling about being here?’ Tutu asked. Mrs Obama replied by gesturing to her two daughters and the other children. ‘It’s not about us now,’ she said. “It’s about them.’

That approach has been a mark of Michelle Obama’s time as First Lady. When she became the world’s most visible African-American woman nearly four years ago, she immediately declared herself “Mom-In-Chief”, and she gave us a window into her approach to mothering.

An early indication that the First Lady hoped to give her daughters as “normal” a childhood as possible while living in Washington and under the national spotlight was Michelle Obama’s decision to ask her mother, Marian Robinson, to move from Chicago into the White House to meet her granddaughters after school and keep a watchful eye on them.

Early on, the First Lady hosted sleepovers for friends of Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11, at the White House. Malia, now a freshman in high school, attended her school’s homecoming dance. Sasha, a sixth-grader, went trick or treating this year in Washington, DC. At the same time, Mrs Obama has required both of her daughters to make their own beds, and Malia to do her own laundry.

‘I don’t want her to be that kid who is 15 or 16, and [she’s saying], “Oh, I don’t know how to do laundry.” I would cringe if she became that kid,’ Michelle Obama told Oprah Winfrey last year. ‘We have real discussions about responsibility, not taking things for granted. And not having a bunch of grown-ups doing stuff for you when you’re completely capable of doing it yourself, and being able to take care of your own business. And you’re not living in the White House forever – you’re going to college… We have those discussions.’

There are more indications that Mrs Obama has traditional notions of parenthood and is determined to live them out all while being a global role model. Back in South Africa, while the family toured former president Nelson Mandela’s archives, Mrs Obama turned to Sasha matter-offactly and said, ‘Pay attention. You’ll be tested on this.’ Before the visit to South Africa, she and her husband explained the history of the apartheid movement to their daughters, she said. But the trip made the stories real for them, as they met Mandela and learned of the movement’s martyrs, who gave up their lives protesting South African racial oppression. These are the kinds of things Mrs Obama discusses with her daughters, she told me in a 2011 interview about the concept of power for Essence Magazine, a US publication that caters to black women. In the interview the First Lady also revealed a lot about her parenting philosophy.

‘We talk endlessly, me and my girls, because I think that is also our power as women. When you’re seven, what does [power] mean? It means you’ve got to do what you say you’re going to do,’ she said. ‘You have to take on responsibilities and chores, and you have to accomplish those small tasks to the fullest. You have to tell the truth. You have to be an honest person. You have to be good in how you engage with other people and how you develop your own friendships. All of that is the practice of power.’”

Picture credit: Getty Images

What do you think of Michelle Obama and her impact and role in the White House? Tweet us your views @StylistMagazine with the hashtag #michelleobama

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