When Barack and Michelle Obama visited a Washington, D.C., public charter school on Feb. 3, they asked a class of second-graders what they wanted to be when they grew up. "First lady!" exclaimed one girl. Michelle Obama smiled. "It doesn't pay much," she responded.
In Michelle's last job, as a vice president of the University of Chicago hospitals, she earned $316,000 annually, almost double her husband's salary as a U.S. senator. The job of first lady, on the other hand, has always paid exactly ... nothing. But perhaps because Michelle Obama is so much more visible than her predecessor, Laura Bush, pundits have been debating whether the Harvard-educated lawyer deserves to pull a paycheck for her full-time duties as a public face of the Obama administration.
In February, Michelle Obama embarked upon an unprecedented tour of federal agencies. She addressed tens of thousands of bureaucrats, thanking them for their service and discussing how her husband's economic-stimulus package would improve each department's work. Michelle, who had previously promised to serve primarily as the "mom in chief," was taking on an explicitly political role, pitching the stimulus legislation even as it remained stalemated in Congress. "The Department of Education is going to be at the forefront of many of the things that we have to do in this administration," Michelle said during a Feb. 2 visit. "With these investments that we hope to make through this stimulus package, we'll be able to prevent teacher layoffs and education cuts in hard-hit states."
The last time a first lady got so involved in a policy debate was in 1993, when Bill Clinton tapped Hillary Clinton to lead his health-care-reform task force. We know how that turned out. Yet even after conservatives drummed Hillary off the Washington policy stage, she remained a potent force within her husband's administration. Hillary's official schedule from those eight years numbers 11,000 pages. And there is little doubt that Barack and Michelle Obama represent a similar "two for the price of one" deal.
"We view his election as a labor contract between not just Barack Obama and the country, but also between Michelle Obama and the country," writes feminist blogger Jaana Goodrich on her blog, Echidne of the Snakes. "Yet she is not getting paid, because she is really viewed as part and parcel of him."
That assumption is hopelessly retrograde. In the United States, 68 percent of married moms work outside the home, and Michelle Obama is no different. The job of first lady is so crucial that our one bachelor president, James Buchanan, appointed his niece to carry out the traditional duties. So considering the varied social and political services the first lady--or, one day, the first gentleman--renders to the United States, don't taxpayers owe her a salary?
Not so, argues historian Jonathan Zimmerman in the San Francisco Chronicle. If we paid the first lady, Zimmerman writes, wouldn't the vice president's spouse expect a salary and maybe even the spouses of senators? After all, they too have numerous duties. During a recession, we must be more frugal. "Living 'only' on the president's $400,000 salary, however, [the Obamas will] make eight times as much as the average American household," Zimmerman points out. "It's hard to see why they need a second income."
It is true that the Obamas don't need the money. But that's no reason to deny the president's partner compensation for her work. The salary for the first lady should be garnished from her husband's wages. Since we expect our presidents to be just one half of a 24/7 public-relations team, why not pay the president less--say $300,000--and make out the remainder of the check to his wife?
It might sound radical, but I'm not the first person to suggest salary-sharing as a solution. In her 1989 classic, Justice, Gender, and the Family, political philosopher Susan Moller Okin goes further, arguing that in couples made up of one stay-at-home and one working spouse, employers should pay each partner exactly 50 percent of the working spouse's salary. "The household income is rightly shared, because in a real sense jointly earned," Okin writes. "The wage-earning spouse is no more supporting the home-making and child-rearing spouse than the latter is supporting the former; the form of support each offers the family is simply different."
Such a system would protect women, giving them the financial resources necessary to exit unhappy or abusive relationships. And while Michelle Obama is in no need of extra cash, paying her for a difficult job sets the right example. "Women's work," even when invisible, is no less deserving of payment than men's. When the woman in question is the first lady--committing herself to public service--that is doubly true.