Jul 3rd 2008
From The Economist print edition
Is Barack Obama's wife his rock or his bitter half?
THERE are two ways to be a political spouse. You can shun the limelight or you can grab it. Margaret Thatcher’s late husband, Denis, exemplified the former approach. He never upstaged his wife and though intelligent and rich, he was content to be viewed as a golfing, gin-swilling duffer. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Clintons. Hillary was Bill’s closest adviser when he was president, and he would have done the same for her, had she been elected. Neither approach is right or wrong, but both have predictable consequences. If you keep your mouth shut, you are unlikely to stir up controversy. If you speak up, you may help your spouse, but you risk hurting him or her, too.
John McCain’s wife, Cindy, gazes adoringly at him on the stump but says little. If she has to introduce him, she says she loves him and hopes you will vote for him. She may favour pink skirt-suits over golfing trousers, but in her reluctance to say anything that might conceivably hurt her spouse she is unmistakably a (Denis) Thatcherite. Hostile bloggers half-heartedly accuse her of being a Stepford wife or make snide cracks about the fortune she inherited and her past addiction to painkillers. But she seldom captures the headlines and seems to like it that way.
Michelle Obama falls somewhere between the two poles. Unlike Bill or Hillary, she has never hinted that she expects to be co-president. But unlike Mrs McCain, she criss-crosses the country making fiery speeches on her husband’s behalf. In many ways, she is a huge asset to his campaign. She is clever, driven, beautiful and articulate. Even when he is not there, she draws large, avid crowds. Yet she still finds time to be supermum. She bought two laptops so her husband can see and talk to his daughters when he is on the road. She teases him about his snoring and makes him take out the rubbish. He calls her “my rock”.
Like her husband, she exemplifies the American dream, having risen from humble roots to Princeton, Harvard and a $275,000-a-year job handling “community and external affairs” and “business diversity” for a hospital in Chicago. But her story is otherwise quite different from his. His background is more exotic and chaotic. His mother was white, his father was Kenyan, they broke up when he was two and the young Barack later lived in Hawaii and Indonesia. Michelle’s family, by contrast, was hard-up but intact. It was also all-black, all-American and rooted in the South Side of Chicago. Michelle grew up knowing useful people: she was chummy with Jesse Jackson’s daughter and even baby-sat his son when she was a teenager.
When Barack was starting out as a politician, his rivals dismissed him as inauthentically African-American or even “the white man in blackface”. Having Michelle at his side helped reassure sceptical blacks that he was really one of them. Even the precise shade of her skin colour may have helped him at the polls. Famous black men often pick light-skinned or white wives. Some black women resent this. That Michelle is quite dark may have endeared Barack to black female voters who might otherwise have voted for Hillary Clinton.
Now that the primaries are over, the issues have changed. Blacks are solidly for Mr Obama, but many swing voters are unsure. Some Republicans think his wife’s habit of speaking her mind could prove a problem. For example, in February, as her husband’s campaign was catching fire, she said: “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” Some Americans bristle at the implication that the only worthwhile thing any of them has done in the past quarter-century is to back Mr Obama.
Mrs Obama’s speeches rarely accentuate the positive. America, to her, is a “downright mean” country where families struggle to buy food, where mothers are terrified of being fired if they get pregnant and where “life for regular folks has gotten worse over the course of my lifetime”. But she was born in 1964, when Americans lived shorter, poorer lives and southern blacks couldn’t vote. Whereas her husband is magically skilled at not giving offence, Mrs Obama can be a blunt instrument. “Don’t go into corporate America,” she urges young people, denigrating what most Americans do for a living and biting the hand that pays for all the public programmes she favours. “Barack Obama will require you to work,” she says. “He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation…Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.” Some
people would rather decide for themselves how to live their lives.
The bitter bit
Conservative pundits have savaged her. One acerbic blogger calls her “Obama’s bitter half”. Others mock her occasional gripes about her personal finances and her solipsistic college thesis about the woes of black Princetonians. The National Review says she “embodies a peculiar mix of privilege and victimology, which is not where most Americans live. On the other hand, it does make her a terrific Oprah guest.”
Mr Obama says people should lay off his wife. Laura Bush agrees. And one has to sympathise with Mrs Obama. She was always a reluctant political wife. Her husband’s crazy hours and long absences impose a hefty burden on her and on their children. In dark moments, she fears for his physical safety. And all the while, both she and her husband are subjected to maliciously false gossip online.
But not all criticism is unfair. If Mr Obama is president, his wife will have the ear of the most powerful man on earth. So her political views matter. And if she expresses them forcefully in speech after speech, she can hardly cry foul when not everyone likes what she says. On June 30th she appeared on the front page of USA Today saying: “I don’t want to be a distraction.” For better or for worse, she is.