As the presidential office has become more sensationalized and publicized, the spotlight has expanded to include the president’s family. Michelle Obama has become a celebrity in her own right, but how does she measure up to her predecessors?
In “Wives in the White House: The Political Influence of First Ladies,” O’Connor, Nye and Van Assendelft analyze and categorize the first ladies from Martha Washington to Hilary Clinton. Let’s see if Michelle Obama measures up to their criteria on the profile of the typical first lady.
- Education: Most first ladies had less formal education than their presidential counterparts, a fair number had equal educational achievements and a few had more education than their husbands (1). Michelle falls into the third category; both she and Barack have their J.D. from Harvard Law school after attending undergrad at Princeton and Columbia, respectively (2, 3).
- Marriage age: The authors report that “the average age of the first ladies at marriage was 24 years old” (1). When she married Barack in 1992, Michelle was 28 years old (2).
- Children: Like 41 of the other first ladies, Michelle Obama is a mother. The average number of children in presidential families is 3.6, but Barack and Michelle only have two daughters, Sasha and Malia (1, 2).
- Age at Becoming First Lady: The average age of first ladies when their husband takes office is 47 (1). Michelle became the first lady only three days after her 45th birthday (2).
When comparing Michelle to the author’s criteria, she pretty much fits the bill, if not exceeds it. In fact, her J.D. puts her in a category of only three first ladies to have earned a postgraduate degree (2). Michelle also breaks the mold as the only African-American first lady in United States history thus far.
In the article, O’Connor, Nye and Van Assendelft outline three roles that first ladies can assume. Which ones Michelle has fulfilled and how?
- The Ceremonial First Lady: Perhaps the most widely-seen duty of the first lady, she is a key player in social settings, often acting as “the president’s official hostess” (1). Through hosting dinners, greeting guests and entertaining the political elite, the first lady has the chance to influence not only the president’s public image, but also his influence in the political sphere (1). Michelle is often seen alongside her husband at social events like the White House Easter Egg Roll or on more ceremonial occasions like greeting the Queen of England.
- The Political/Representative First Lady: This category mostly involves the first lady traveling on her husband’s behalf. The article cites the examples of Lady Bird Johnson campaigning through the South and Rosalyn Carter traveling to Latin America (1). In 2013, Michelle and her daughters took a trip to Africa that included meeting Nelson Mandela (4). She has also been active on Barack’s campaign trail, including a stop here at UNC in October 2012.
- The Policy First Lady: On another recognizable front, the first lady often adopts a “pet policy” for which she is an advocate during her term. Notable past examples include Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign against drugs and Pat Nixon’s push for volunteerism (1). Michelle’s focus has been her “Let’s Move!” campaign, fighting childhood obesity through the promotion of exercise and healthy eating (2). She has created a White House garden, written a book and hosted a multitude of events to inspire children to get on their feet and watch what they eat.
Michelle Obama has thus far been a successful first lady, according to the criteria laid out by O’Connor, Nye and Van Assendelft. Beyond that, she is well-loved across partisan lines as a fashion icon, a doting mother, a loving wife and the pinnacle of a modern first lady. In 2016, First Lady #45 will have big shoes to fill.
(1) O’Connor, Karen, Bernadette Nye and Laura Van Assendelft. “Wives in the White House: The Political Influence of First Ladies.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3, Reassessments of Presidents and First Ladies (Summer 1996), pp. 835-853.