Michelle Obama has been a vital component of her husband’s White House tenure, leaving an indelible legacy that will be a hard act to follow.
First Lady Michelle Obama was a vital component of her husband’s White House tenure. (Courtesy Photo)
“She leaves really big shoes for the next first lady to fill,” said Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University. “One would be hard-pressed to deny that she had a lasting impression on the office. I think people are going to look at her tenure in office positively.
Even before she entered the White House, it was clear Michelle Obama would not fit the mold of the typical first lady. Princeton graduate, Harvard law degree recipient, corporate lawyer, Chicago’s assistant commissioner for planning and development, executive director of a group that grooms community leaders and vice president at the University of Chicago—Michelle Obama’s professional portfolio rivalled—even trumped—that of her famous husband.
“I don’t think in this modern society that the first lady role would be traditional because women like me are already breaking the mold,” she told the AFRO in a February 2008 interview during Barack Obama’s first campaign for president. “The fact that I’m a vice president of a company has thrown people off. The fact that I have a career and a spouse, that I am a great speaker in my own right, some would say compelling, sends people in a tizzy at some level. But that’s who women are.”
Yet, Michelle Obama’s approach to the role of first lady—a job that comes with little description or helpful rule book—has been mostly traditional, and her chief role has been that of mom-in-chief to daughters, Malia and Sasha.
Without doubt, the most lasting aspect of Michelle Obama’s legacy is the distinction she shares with her husband of being the first African Americans to hold the titles of president and first lady.
“In so many ways this was so special—simply that they were there,” said Peter Slevin, associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University and author of Michelle Obama: A Life. “The Obamas in the White House taking their work seriously and getting things done—I think this will have an impact for generations.”
Robert Smith, a political analyst at San Francisco State University, agreed that the Obamas’ very “presence” and the visibility of their successful, intact family changed stereotypes about what Black family life looks like.
But the historic nature of being the “first” African-American anything—and even more so the first lady of the United States—brings with it an additional level of challenge.
There was also an additional degree of criticism that often took a vicious, personal bent that went past mere politics—as in when the New Yorker played into the “angry Black woman” trope in its depiction of Mrs. Obama with an afro and machine gun in her first appearance on a magazine cover, when a Wisconsin Republican disparaged her “large posterior” or when a West Virginia nonprofit director called her an “ape in heels.”
“She has been the target of a number of unfair attacks because of her being ‘insufficiently American’ in the eyes of some people,” Smith said.
However, the first lady—and the president—distinguished themselves by how gracefully they handled the unprecedented, sometimes racially-motivated vitriol aimed their way.
Their approach was, perhaps, best encapsulated in Michelle Obama’s much-acclaimed speech on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention back in July, when in explaining the lessons and morals she and the president try to instill in their daughters she said: “We explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is: when they go low, we go high.”
“Even people who disagree with them politically have to agree they conducted themselves with grace and intelligence,” Smith said.
Mrs. Obama’s celebrated speech on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s losing bid for the White House highlighted her oratory skills, but also another aspect of her glowing legacy.
“Michelle Obama’s symbolic power may have been her strongest achievement in the way that she spoke to young audiences and used the example of her life to demonstrate what was possible, especially to audiences of African-American girls,” Slevin, a former national correspondent for The Washington Post, said. “To the people she touched that may be her most important legacy.”
The first lady’s ability to connect with people was evident in her favorability ratings, which stayed above 60 percent.
“Many of her audiences found her to be authentic and smart and funny,” said Slevin. He added that the first lady was also an inspiration for everyone. “Michelle gets so much attention as a Black woman for all that she accomplished and how she inspires so many African-American kids, but what’s sometimes forgotten is what she represents as a person. She has sparkling educational credentials from Princeton and Harvard, an extremely successful 20-year career in Chicago; she is a devoted daughter and mother and wife who has struggled to balance work and family . . . . There is nothing that is purely African-American about that.”
In her primary role as chief supporter of her husband, Michelle Obama also helped to make the more cerebral, reserved president more relatable to the public.
“I can give people a perspective into Barack’s character like no other person can, I mean, I’m married to the guy,” she said in the February 2008 interview with the AFRO. “I know his strengths and weaknesses but I can also speak to his character.”
Michelle Obama also was tasked with validating her husband’s Blackness to skeptical African-American voters early in his career and her presence at his side—a darker hued Black woman—did the same during his campaign for president. For example, when her husband was running for a Senate seat in 2004, she told a Chicago television station: “I’ve grown up in this community. I’m as Black as it gets. I was born on the South side. I come from an obviously Black family. We weren’t rich. I put my Blackness up against anybody’s Blackness in this state, OK? And Barack is a Black man. And he’s done more in terms of meeting his commitments and sticking his neck out for this community than many people who criticize him. And I can say that ’cause I’m Black.”
In addition to championing her husband and his policies, Michelle Obama’s legacy will also defined by the issues she advocated as first lady.
Specifically, the first lady’s Let’s Move! initiative, which was launched in 2010, brought together private and public organizations to focus much needed attention on the childhood obesity epidemic and the need for healthier eating and more active lifestyles. Through her efforts, food companies made the first major changes in nutrition labelling in several decades. Also, the first lady promoted access to more nutritious, affordable meals though the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which ushered in the first major change in school meals in 15 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicated.
Perhaps the most visible sign of the first lady’s efforts in that regard is the much celebrated White House kitchen garden—including the first-ever White House beehive and pollinator garden—which will likely continue to thrive with the help of a $2.5 million endowment from home gardening company W. Atlee Burpee and The Burpee Foundation. Now doubled in size to 2,800 square feet and recently refurbished with arches, paved walkways, wooden tables and benches, it bears a stone marker that reads: “White House Kitchen Garden, established in 2009 by First Lady Michelle Obama with the hopes of growing a healthier nation for our children.”
Obama also has, along with second lady Jill Biden, championed veterans and helped to provide resources and support to military personnel and their families through the Joining Forces campaign. And, she has advocated for girls’ and women’s health, education, and rights, as she did with the Let Girls Learn initiative, which aims to remove barriers to enable girls around the world to receive and education.
More than her platform, however, Michelle Obama will be remembered for how she promoted those messages, showing a savvy with both traditional and new-age media, as in her appearance on popular daytime and late-night talk shows, on YouTube and on social media forums such as “Carpool Karaoke.”
Michelle Obama’s effortless cool was also reflected in her fashion aplomb: her bold choices in color and style; wearing a sleeveless sheath that showed off buff arms in her first official White House portrait; promoting the clothing of little-known designers and wearing unexpected, off-the-rack pieces from stores like Target or J. Crew.
That style—and commitment to diversity—was also represented in the first lady’s duty as hostess, Smith, the San Francisco political analyst, said.
“As a hostess, she was quite memorable in having a wide range of cultural figures at the White House, particularly African-American musicians,” Gillespie said, later adding of the first couple, “The style and grace they brought to the ceremonial aspect of the presidency is something that hasn’t been seen since the Kennedys.”