Flunking Feminism? Why Michelle Obama keeps playing it safe

With Obama administration officials struggling through the worst stretch of his presidency, you’d think they would use every weapon at their disposal.

But that’s not happening. Michelle Obama is playing the same kind of low-key role as she did during the first term.

Could she help personalize the battle over the health care law that bears her last name by appearing with patients and visiting people who have successfully signed up? Of course. But that’s not what she is choosing to do.

The first lady is more popular than her husband, and that’s not unusual in politics. She gets largely adoring media coverage, whether it’s for her vegetable garden, fashion choices or appearances on pop-culture TV shows.

In 2009, several major news organizations assigned fulltime reporters to cover Michelle. If that’s still the case, they must be underemployed.

If the first lady were to dive more deeply into divisive policy issues, that could erode some of the popularity she’s accrued by playing it safe. For better and for worse, she’s no Hillary Clinton. I can’t imagine her seeking a Senate seat after her husband leaves office.

Huge expectations were heaped on her from the beginning, in part because of her unique status as the first African-American in her role. But Obama made clear that she marched to her own drummer and was putting her daughters first.

This debate has gotten kickstarted again by a piece in the new Politico Magazine. Michelle Cottle writes:

“East Wing officials I spoke with stress that Michelle Obama is not about to tap her inner wonk—she will focus on young people, not policy—and while the task of promoting higher ed may be new, speaking directly to kids is simply what Michelle does. Sure enough, in a sit-down with BET’s 106 & Park the week after the Education Department rollout, there was the first lady in full mom mode, lecturing students about nothing more politically controversial than the need to do their homework and get to school on time.

“So enough already with the pining for a Michelle Obama who simply doesn’t exist. The woman is not going to morph into an edgier, more activist first lady. The 2012 election did not set her free. Even now, with her husband waddling toward lame duck territory, she is not going to let loose suddenly with some straight talk about abortion rights or Obamacare or the Common Core curriculum debate. Turns out, she was serious about that whole ‘mom-in-chief’ business—it wasn’t merely a political strategy but also a personal choice.”

So Cottle is not endorsing the idea that Obama needs to much more. But she includes dissenting voices that play to the headline “How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare”:

“Keli Goff, a correspondent for the African-American online magazine The Root, wrote a column calling on Michelle to ditch the cardigans and take her power suits back out of the closet, ‘now that she no longer has to worry about her public image as a super-strong, super-fierce black woman who might cost her husband votes.’

“From Michelle Obama's past work we know that she cares about more than gardening and clean drinking water, Goff tells me. ‘She is one of the most influential black women on the planet, and I consider it a national shame that she’s not putting the weight of her office behind some of these issues.’”

There’s been lots of pushback. On MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry rhetorically addressed Cottle: “Are you serious? Given how simplistic your piece is, let me make this very simple: you are wrong.” She said fighting childhood obesity was “one of the biggest public health crises of our time” and that it was unrealistic to expect Obama to “come roaring out of the White House battling for reproductive rights.”

I don’t think Cottle was making the case that the first lady should do anything like that. But the “nightmare” headline is what grabbed attention.

“The headline is inflammatory, as headlines are typically designed to be,” Cottle tells me. “But the piece in no way suggests she's a nightmare.”

Still, as the New Republic noted, there’s been quite a bit of static on Twitter:

Lizz Winstead:

Michelle Goldberg:

Christine Pelosi (Nancy’s daughter):

The feminism debate rages on, and in that sense, the first lady is merely the latest flashpoint.

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