First lady Michelle Obama made a notably successful and uncontroversial trip to China last week — only her third solo trip during her time in office. She has rarely made forays into foreign affairs — instead focusing on the nation’s eating habits, which is why this trip seemed such an unusual occurrence. This abnormality is not a fault of her own, but rather the office she holds. The office of the first lady has not evolved with the times. In fact, it has remained stuck in the past, more concerned with banquets and social engagements than anything substantiative. It is time for the office to shape up or shut down.
Throughout the highly choreographed trip to China, the closest Michelle Obama came to critiquing Chinese policy was her comments on the issue of censorship. During a speech given in the Stanford Center at Peking University in Beijing, she delivered an implicit denunciation, stating, “It is so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the Internet and through the media.”
Nearly two decades earlier, first lady Hillary Clinton also made a speech in China. The difference in terms of approach to the role of first lady is striking. In one of the most lauded speeches of her political career, Hillary Clinton declared unequivocally, “It is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.” Just as Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford had done before her, Hillary Clinton used the inherent power of the position to advance her own political issues and agenda.
However, this style of tenure is not without its dangers. The decision by former President Bill Clinton to appoint his wife as the head of several policy initiatives ultimately caused severe backlash and suggestions of impropriety. This is most apparent in the critical response to her failed 1993 health care initiative. Yet it is clear that Michelle Obama’s current role as the antipode to Hillary Clinton and as the self-proclaimed “mom-in-chief” devalues the role. Michelle Obama, who holds degrees from Princeton and Harvard, had a successful career as a lawyer before becoming the first lady. The current first lady’s difficulties illuminate the enduring struggle at the heart of an office without a clearly defined role.
Hillary Clinton’s possible campaign in 2016 might be the death knell for the office of the first lady. It is unlikely that Bill Clinton will be content with an office that is more concerned with his style of dress than his policy initiatives. Michelle Obama has managed to achieve a difficult balancing act — being a complement to President Barack Obama’s broader policy narrative without attracting partisan attacks. The office’s inherent flaws, however, remain.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 31 print edition. Harry Brown is a staff columnist. Harry’s Take is published every Monday. Email him at [email protected]