The strangely awesome power of a first spouse

We almost never know it when she is living in the White House overshadowed by her more powerful spouse. He is commander in chief, leader of the free world. And what is she?

Two years ago, both Michelle Obama and her Republican predecessor Laura Bush sat for a conversation in a Kennedy Center theater attended by first ladies from across Africa. Obama and Bush described their unofficial office, which isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, as a kind of force to be harnessed and directed for the public good.

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“What people around the world don’t understand: First spouses, we don’t choose this position, we just happen to be in it,” Obama said.

“We’re elected by one man,” Bush interjected, prompting laughter.

“Right, right,” Obama continued. “So we can’t waste this spotlight. It is temporary, and life is short, and change is needed. And women are smarter than men.”

With that aside, Obama hit on one of the complexities of the first lady role. It comes weighted with more than a century of traditional gender stereotypes.

“If you look at political spouses, you are looking at what it used to mean to be a wife. … A lot of stuff that we get attached to first ladies is there because it was attached to the economic and social circumstances of marriage,” says Rebecca Traister, a journalist and the author of “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” a book about women and politics. “The woman was the domestic figure. The man was the professional and economic figure.”

Hillary Clinton, who rose to national prominence as a political spouse, was finally able to shed the conventions that came along with being first lady when she made her husband, Bill, the plus one. She became a senator while her husband held the Bible for her swearing-in. She became secretary of state, with a seat of her own in the Situation Room.

She is on the cusp of the presidency, while Bill Clinton is giving speeches about why he fell in love with her. To add another wrinkle, Hillary Clinton’s most potent backer on the campaign trail in her quest to become the first female president is the current first lady, Michelle Obama.

Now, if Clinton wins, the role of first lady could undergo a more permanent and radical shift: For the first time, the duties ascribed to a president’s spouse would be handed to a gentleman.

Hillary Clinton’s road to power is both historic and a departure from the norm. For the most part, first ladies sit at the nexus of the gender wars. Their power, which is derived from their adjacency to the president, comes along with traditionally domestic tasks, such as hostessing and decorating. When Michelle Obama added to that by identifying herself as mom-in-chief, some feminists cringed. The headline of one critique called Mrs. Obama a “feminist nightmare.”

For others, the gendered limits of role are the real nightmare.

Accusations that they were the cliched power-behind-the-throne have been lobbed at many first ladies, including Nancy Reagan and Eleanor Roosevelt.

They both denied it.

“The political influence that was attributed to me was nil where my husband was concerned,” Roosevelt wrote in her autobiography. “If I felt strongly about anything, I told Franklin, since he had the power to do things and I did not, but he did not always feel as I felt.”

The truth was not so cut and dried, says Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University who studies American first ladies.

“Mrs. R. always downplayed her influence upon the president, but there is ample evidence that she sought to advocate for certain positions, programs or people,” Gutin says. “In Joseph Lash’s outstanding book ‘Eleanor and Franklin,’ Lash writes about the fact that Mrs. R. would hammer away at FDR if she had something on her mind. He wrote that anyone who attended a dinner with the president and first lady and heard her say ‘Well, surely Franklin. . . ‘ or ‘Franklin, you wouldn’t . . . ‘ as she argued a position never forgot it. There’s also a section in the book that describes Anna Roosevelt, [their oldest child and only daughter] watching Eleanor give FDR a hard time and responding, ‘Mother, you’re giving father indigestion!’ ”

The public has been reluctant to accept such naked attempts to influence public policy on the part of first ladies. When she was in the role, Hillary Clinton broke with tradition and settled into an office in the West Wing of the White House where she intended to shape health-care policy. The eventual blowback was so strong that she ended her husband’s second term as a more traditional first lady, focused on issues affecting women and children.

For her part, Michelle Obama has navigated the complexities of gender, political Washington and tradition as deftly as any of her predecessors. Early on, she pushed back against portrayals of her as meddling in the West Wing, saying she rarely goes there. But on issues she cares about, her imprint has been felt.

The White House Domestic Policy Council got behind her effort to reduce childhood obesity, and the Obama administration pushed through changes to school lunches and later overhauled food nutrition labels. She has also brought in large corporations and celebrity friends to financially support and bring attention to her health agenda.

Even on the campaign trail for Democrats, she has honed an ability to brutally criticize her family’s political opponents while maintaining an aura of positivity (think “When they go low, we go high”). Her recent speech following the 2005 videotape in which Donald Trump bragged of inappropriate behavior toward women managed to eviscerate the GOP nominee without mentioning his name.

Obama’s power, like that of other political spouses, stems from the ability to influence, says political scientist Lauren Wright, who turned her doctoral project on first ladies and communication into the book “On Behalf of the President.” Wright studied the public remarks of the past three first ladies and conducted surveys that measured the areas where they moved people’s thinking.

“There is evidence they can influence the way people perceive the president, the president’s policy agenda and presidential candidates,” Wright says.

In other words, first ladies are not elected officials, but their power is no less real.


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