Wonder Woman she's not. She has Wonder Woman's good biceps, as we've
seen in the photographs, but she's hard to picture in red, white and
blue tights and starred spangles.
Nor is she Jackie Kennedy, with Jackie's perfect taste. Jackie would
never have sent those tacky plastic toy helicopters to the children of
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Michelle has planted vegetables on the south lawn of the White House,
just like Eleanor Roosevelt's World War II victory garden and unlike
Eleanor, she hasn't been accused of meddling in policy, not yet. She has
overcome some of the suspicion and hostility she stirred during the
campaign, particularly after she said that "for the first time in my
adult life I am proud of my country."
If Michelle Obama is a work in progress, so are the Americans always
eager to take the measure of a new first lady. Her poll numbers have
risen and her negatives have declined since they were first measured
last summer. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows her favorable
ratings jumping to 76 percent, up 28 points since summer. Negatives have
fallen, mostly because some Republicans have changed their opinion of
Some conservatives say they like the way she's serious about being "Mom
in chief," expanding a role that includes concern for the travails of
military families. She doesn't just talk about the importance of
volunteer work, either, but handles the ladle at soup kitchens.
She values private spending. The Obamas are redecorating the domestic
quarters at the White House with their own money, though the first
family is entitled to spend $100,000 to freshen up the living quarters
every four years. (When they leave they'll be entitled to the furniture,
unlike the Clintons, who mixed up some of their own belongings with
things that didn't belong to them when they left the White House.) She
knows it's not the right time to tap taxpayers to decorate a perfectly
good house while so many Americans are losing their homes. Smart
While Michelle's poll numbers climb, her husband's are just beginning to
falter. Nearly half of those who don't like what he's doing in his job
like what she's doing in hers. Curiously, it's our metrosexual men who
prudishly titter about Michelle's clothes. Maureen Dowd plumbs the
newsroom at The New York Times to learn what America is thinking and
quotes her colleague David Brooks that it's time for the first lady to
put away her sleeveless tops and "cover up." Says Brooks: "She's made
her point. Now she should put away Thunder and Lightning."
Does a muscular woman threaten male pundits? Grandma Grundy, who in
Victorian times demanded skirts for the legs of the piano, has given way
to Grandpa Grumpy, who doesn't like bare arms. But fitness is about
health, too: With 38 percent of black American women and 23 percent of
white American women overweight and vulnerable to type 2 diabetes, high
blood pressure and heart disease, Michelle is an example of healthy
"First lady" is the most vaguely defined job description in Washington.
Jackie Kennedy scoffed that "first lady" sounded like the name of a
saddle horse. Her husband agreed: "A man marries a woman, not a first
lady." There's the rub. He runs for office, and she's compelled to go
along for the ride, like it or not. From Martha to Michelle, first
ladies have been adored and abhorred and every permutation between,
judged first for their fashion sense.
Martha Washington dressed simply and plainly only in dresses made in
America of American fabrics, boosting local markets. No outsourcing at
Mount Vernon. Martha knew what Michelle knows, that what she wears
influences what other women buy.
Michelle Obama follows one of the most popular first ladies. Laura Bush
fused the feminine and the feminist, the mother and the librarian,
stressing the importance of books for young children. She didn't have
the political baggage of her predecessor, whose stormy marriage was soap
opera writ large and whose personality was "in your face," whether
dealing with Whitewater, "wifewater" or Hillarycare.
Michelle as first lady sends a different message, whether to poor and
oft-neglected children here, or to the masses in London and Europe,
where she is this week with her husband, inspiring by building on the
black experience of overcoming obstacles. Maybe she arm-wrestles him
about the takeovers and bailouts, but he's still the president and
she's not. Nevertheless, she gets to cultivate her own garden.