Byline: Michelle Cottle
First Lady Fight!
let'S get the requisite disclaimer out of the way: nobody votes for first lady. Everyone gets that. And most people agree that, in a perfect world--or at the very least a saner one--the spouses of presidential contenders would be spared the gruesome vivisection that has become de rigueur in modern campaigns. Some might even succeed in being ignored altogether.
In this world, however, wives still play a key role in fleshing out the man behind the brand. Voters look to the missus for a peek into a contender's heart and soul--a glimpse at his core character.
Like the candidates themselves, the spouses bring different strengths and weaknesses to the game. They fuel expectations and satisfy longings, and they often become the repository of voters' hopes and fears about society writ large. More than a few wind up adorably labeled as their husbands' "secret weapon."
It is rare that a presidential race brings us two spouses that embody such contrasting versions of first ladydom--really of American culture more broadly. Michelle Obama: modern, striving, scrappy, edgy, ironic. Ann Romney: traditional, genteel, vulnerable, soothing, earnest. Both women fought fiercely for their husbands, and both proved gifted surrogates--with maybe one or two stumbles along the way.
As first ladies so often do, Michelle Obama blazed into this reelection campaign vastly more popular than her husband. Forget the unsteady, occasionally impolitic naif of the 2008 race; Michelle has spent the past four years learning the ropes. She picked important but not terribly controversial issues to champion: fighting fat and supporting military families. She made use of nontraditional media outlets like kids' shows and reality TV. She kept her head down, raised her daughters, rarely responded to criticism, and managed to become a style icon without seeming shallow or overly concerned with appearances. Four years in, Michelle still seems down-to-earth, fiery, and irreverent--all characteristics Americans wish her cool-cat, professorial husband would display more often. Her job now is to drag Barack down off that mountaintop to mingle with the rest of us again.
If not for Bill Clinton's barn burner, Mrs. Obama's speech would have been the talk of the Democrats' nominating convention. Passionate without being abrasive, she made the case for her man--and their cause--far better than he did.
Mrs. Obama hasn't generated the disenchanted grumbling that her husband has, but she has collected her share of detractors even among former fans. She's not bold enough in her advocacy. She doesn't talk about important Issue X. She doesn't reach out to this group or that one. After four years on the job, she is popular, but also utterly familiar. And we all know what familiarity breeds ...
When Michelle hugged the queen of England, traditionalists flinched. When she told a reporter she'd rather be the "Bootylicious" Beyonce than anyone else in the world, eyebrows …