First Lady Michelle Obama Also Starts Her 2nd Term

Jan 21, 2013
Originally published on January 21, 2013 10:01 am
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A second term for Barack Obama, of course, always means four more years in the spotlight for his wife Michelle. The first lady's time in the White House has involved work focused on children and military families, as well as plenty of focus on her fashion, which was evidenced over the last few days with the reaction to her new hairdo, which included bangs.

For more on the first lady, we're joined by Jodi Kantor, a New York Times correspondent and author of "The Obamas," which examined the first couple's life in the White House. Welcome to the program.

JODI KANTOR: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Michelle Obama was very active on the campaign trail last year, this past election. She seemed comfortable in that role, but many of us remember that things were not so comfortable for her the first time around in 2008. You know, and as popular as she's become, remind us where she started in terms of her image.

KANTOR: You know, what I always tell people is that Michelle Obama is the student who got the A-plus in the class that she hated. She never wanted to be in public life. And when she started to campaign for her husband, she was the Chicago hospital executive with very little national campaign experience, and she was in essence going up against Bill Clinton, because he was Hillary Clinton's spouse. Now, she had a lot of charisma, was a real hit, especially in small settings. But she was not yet a disciplined campaigner. She didn't have a speechwriter staff, she didn't have a lot of support from the guys back in Chicago, which was a source of tension internally, and she kind of freestyled.

She said what she wanted and she sometimes got in trouble for that. Like when she said she was proud of her country for the first time. And that was endlessly replayed on cable TV. And then within a couple of months of becoming famous, people start to call her an angry black woman, you know, they say that she's a radical, et cetera, et cetera. And for Michelle Obama to watch her image spin out of control like that was really painful. She really worried that she was hurting her husband's cause.

MONTAGNE: She made a great effort to soften her image, even during that first campaign in 2008. What has she done over the past four years to maintain a safer image? Certainly a glamorous one as well, but it's many things, but it's certainly safe.

KANTOR: A really safe image. When old friends of Michelle Obama's from Chicago look at her now, they say, look, she's not being inauthentic. The maternal warmth you see from her, the charisma, that is all really her. What they say is that so much has been edited out. The forceful advocate, the Harvard-trained lawyer, the person who has a really deep critique of politics - that is somebody we do not see at all.

Instead, she does issues like how to pack a healthy lunch or some of the military family initiatives she's worked on. She sees her job as to support her husband. And part of supporting her husband is not creating any controversy whatsoever.

MONTAGNE: But you do tell stories in your book, "The Obamas," of Michelle Obama pushing her husband on some policy. I mean, where are her fingerprints on the president's agenda?

KANTOR: The first is health care reform. Remember, it was very controversial within the administration. Lots of advisers, from the vice president to then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, did not want the president to go forward with his overhaul. They wanted him to be more cautious.

The way to understand Michelle Obama's point of view on this administration is that she doesn't want her husband to be a regular politician. She doesn't want him to succumb to what the Obamas call the Washington noise. She wants him to be an inspirational leader, a bold leader, a leader who is going to be true to the reasons he was elected. She backed him when a lot of political advisors were telling him no; she said yes.

MONTAGNE: In a context where he would have possibly turned his attention more fully to, say, the economy.

KANTOR: Absolutely. Rahm Emanuel wanted the president to kind of slim down his health care plans and instead focus on things that were more popular and easier to pass.

MONTAGNE: Another very visible way in which the first lady has influence is in her fashions, and in fact rather an overwhelming amount of attention is paid to what she wears. Does she seem at all bothered by that?

KANTOR: She did early on. It was really disconcerting for her in the first year or two to have everything she did and everything she wore picked apart. And she's not alone in that, by the way. You know, I've talked to Hillary Clinton's aides, Laura Bush's aides, and they all kind of agree that the first year of being first lady is kind of a shock.

MONTAGNE: The criticisms of her clothes may have been a shock to her at the time. But it seems to me that between J. Crew and these American hip fashion designers - many of them young, many of them she seems to have discovered - she seems to get a lot of great press on simply how sort of gorgeous she looks.

KANTOR: She does get a lot of great press, and not only that but she can actually move markets when it comes to clothing. There was a study done showing that what she wears has a more powerful effect on people in terms of the clothes they want to buy than a lot of advertising. When she discovers a designer and makes them famous, that designer can benefit tremendously.

MONTAGNE: Looking ahead to a second term, do you think that Michelle Obama will have, or do you think she even desires, a weightier policy voice in the next term? I mean, even about her own agenda? Will she, in your opinion, take bolder action, something that might even offend?

KANTOR: That is absolutely the right question to ask. And the reason I think it's the right question is that Michelle Obama is somebody who believes in spending capital. I do suspect that she wants to take and use her popularity for some good. It may be just supporting her husband's agenda in various ways. But part of what's interesting here is that the work she's already done could be taken in a more ambitious direction.

I'll give you one example, which is she's done a lot of work on military families. Most of it so far has been saying things like we really need better job training for military families. We really need people in their home communities to support military families. There's nothing the least bit controversial about any of that.

Privately, however, I know that one issue she cares about a lot are mental health issues for military families. And as you and listeners know, the suicide rate among returning veterans is a matter of great concern. So, one of the questions that I have going forward is that, would she address something as delicate as mental health, as suicide? It's not that it's controversial per se, but it's dark, it's difficult, it's tricky, it's hard to change.

MONTAGNE: Jodi Kantor is a correspondent of the New York Times and the author of the book, "The Obamas." Thank you very much for joining us.

KANTOR: My pleasure. Thank you.


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