Her critics used to paint her as a scary Marxist. Now they cast her as a spoiled princess.
During the campaign, she was caricatured on the cover of The New Yorker as a fist-bumping, gun-toting Black Panther. Now she’s mocked by a New York Daily News blogger as a jet-setting, free-spending Marie Antoinette. (On Spain’s Costa del Sol with Sasha on her husband’s 49th birthday, she did, in effect, say let him eat cake — alone.)
Michelle Obama is the most popular figure in the administration, but last week she had her first brush with getting brushed back in the press.
Some of the women anchoring news shows on MSNBC debated whether the first lady was being “mean” to her husband by deserting him on his birthday for a girls’ getaway to Spain, and whether it was sort of sad, as one put it, that the president, drowning in troubles, had to go to Chicago to find friends (including Oprah) to celebrate with.
Andrea Tantaros, a Fox contributor and former Republican operative, wrote a harsh Daily News blog post calling the first lady a “material girl” for going on a glitzy vacation at a luxury resort in Marbella with a cavalcade of Secret Service agents, friends, children and staff, even as “most of the country is pinching pennies and downsizing summer sojourns — or forgoing them altogether.”
In politics and pop culture, optics are all. And Michelle’s optics sent a message that likely made some in the White House and the Democratic Party wince.
She seemed to be gigging her husband a bit: I’m going to do what I want to do. I can’t worry about whether it gives the Tea Partiers ammo or makes Democrats (including you) campaigning against the excesses of the rich look hypocritical. Even if the country is sliding into a double-dip recession, I’m going abroad to a five-star hotel on Air Force Two and give a boost to another country’s economy.
To defray possible criticism of their upcoming 10-day trip to Martha’s Vineyard, Michelle belatedly agreed to a weekend family vacation on Florida’s gulf coast. On Friday, Spanish police closed a public beach for the American entourage. If Michelle had wanted a closed beach, she could have headed to our gulf sooner. There are plenty of multi-star hotels there, and she and the girls could have cleaned a few pelicans.
Certainly, as Obama adviser David Axelrod says, “not everything is political theater.” The Obamas shouldn’t have to poll, as the Clintons did, to figure out where to go on vacation.
“Folks in the public eye are also human beings,” Axelrod told me. “If you have the ability to show your kid a part of the world and you can do that together before they get to the age where they don’t want to do anything with you, I don’t think it’s right that you have to defer it because of the politics.”
But as Michelle and friends frolicked in the land of flamenco, the birthday boy got few gifts from the news.
More Democratic candidates shied away from appearing with him. The latest disappointing jobs report prompted evening news reports about Americans’ fears of falling into what one called “the abyss.” And a CNN poll showed that a quarter of Americans still doubt the president was even born here.
The job of first lady, tightly constrained by convention, is hard for modern women. Michelle is a gutsy Harvard Law School grad who started as her husband’s mentor. Any coloring outside the lines can cause problems, as Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton learned when lampooned as Marie Antoinettes.
Michelle has done such a good job that she silenced her vituperative conservative critics for a year a half. But perhaps the strain of debunking that “angry black woman” stereotype by playing the smiling, conventional first lady, talking to Ladies’ Home Journal about vegetable cleanses and portion sizes, made her want to assert her independence in the one place she could: her schedule.
The inimitable columnist Mary McGrory once said that if a first lady simply made her husband toast, that was enough, given how hard his job was.
And because his predecessor mucked things up so royally, President Obama’s job is ridiculously hard. But at moments when you think Michelle might make her husband toast, or better yet a martini, she’s often off on a girls’ trip.
When health care passed after a difficult year and the president celebrated with his staff on the Truman Balcony, the first lady was with her daughters on Broadway to see “Memphis.”
When the BP oil spill stained the White House, making the president seem so impotent that he had to make his first national address from the Oval Office, the first lady was playing with her mother and daughters in Los Angeles, staying at the Beverly Wilshire. She was taking in a Lakers game the night of his address.
During the campaign, Michelle tried to offset her husband’s existential detachment with familial warmth. Now that he holds the world’s loneliest office, he needs that more than ever. (Source NYT)