More Than "Mom-in-Chief"

A few months ago, Prospect contributor Courtney Martin wrote about the frustration feminists felt toward Michelle Obama. Here was a trailblazing career woman, a Harvard- and Princeton-educated attorney at a major Chicago law firm who nonetheless billed herself as "mom-in-chief." For Martin, this branding of Michelle Obama was a calculated political move, an attempt to project an image that did not ruffle feathers or detract from the president's campaign.

Some feminists may not be happy with Michelle Obama -- she is inevitably compared to Hilary Clinton, who famously "overstepped" by introducing an omnibus bill that would have completely changed the health-care system in 1994 -- and criticize her for signing on to innocuous-sounding, child-focused programs like her predecessors Barbara and Laura Bush, who promoted literacy, and Nancy Reagan, who told kids to "Just Say No" to drugs. But at its one-year mark, "Let's Move," her initiative aimed at curbing childhood obesity, has come to show that she doesn't fall easily into either of the first-lady molds Ann Friedman described in 2007: the Hillary or the anti-Hillary.

Michelle Obama's troubles began during her husband's campaign. She pushed back against racism and sexism in ways that her husband couldn't, but was immediately stereotyped as dominating and emasculating. By the convention, she'd focused on her role as a wife and a mother and had stepped back from her job as a hospital executive. That is a fraught decision for any career woman, and Obama coupled it with a promise that her role as first lady would be as a wife and mother, not as a policy-maker. Even though one of her first acts as first lady was to get her political hands dirty by promoting the stimulus package, for the first year of her husband's administration, she turned her attention to ceremonial duties, like planning state dinners and hosting White House events.

It took a year before she made a big policy push, not in helping military families as she planned during the campaign but, instead, in improving childhood health. It may seem like a "safe" area for first ladies to delve into, but the way Obama tackled the problem has had a real impact.

Those who underestimate the effect of the Childhood Nutrition Act -- the first major accomplishment of the "Let's Move" campaign -- underestimate Obama. Martin compared her unfavorably to Laura Bush (though she did say she believes Obama will be ready to put up a fight when necessary). What she misses is that Michelle Obama is really Hillary Clinton cloaked as Laura Bush. Pushing for the Childhood Nutrition Act was not just about what schools serve to children. Improving access to healthful food is an important social-justice issue and one of the best ways to help low-income children. The bill, which passed in December, would serve more and better food through several different school programs and make it easier for poor families to sign up for free lunches. The school-lunch program was set up to feed children who might not otherwise get a healthy meal during the day, and this bill refocused school food on that mission.

The bill will also have a broader impact on food production outside of schools. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the school-lunch program, is such a big customer for American food companies that its demands leach over into the products sold to every consumer: If the USDA demands less salt in its food and high-quality chicken nuggets, then there's a good chance companies will make food with less salt and of higher quality for everyone.

It's also higher-profile than the campaign of her immediate predecessor. Obama didn't just support an existing bill; she recruited businesses and high-profile chefs to sign on. She publicly urged Congress to pass it. Obama doesn't just promote exercise and healthy living; she took on big food manufacturers by criticizing high-sugar foods heavily marketed to children -- she criticized marketing methods at a Grocery Manufacturers Association forum. "It's a tough campaign because most of us don't like to be told what to eat," says Betty Boyd Caroli, author of First Ladies: Martha Washington to Michelle Obama.. "It's probably one of the toughest projects a first lady could take on."

"Let's Move," then, is standard first-lady fare, but Obama got it done. She combined pragmatism -- she got big food companies and groceries, including Wal-Mart, to sign on -- and chutzpa -- she criticized them, too. That combination makes her very much like her husband. But it also means that she had a real effect on policy while remaining extremely popular -- she compromised as she was succeeding.

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