Magazine article The American Prospect

All Work, No Pay

Magazine article The American Prospect

All Work, No Pay

Article excerpt

WHEN BARACK AND MICHELLE OBAMA VISITED A Washington, D.C., public charter school on Feb. 3, they asked a class of second-graders what they wanted to be when they grew up. "First lady!" exclaimed one girl. Michelle Obama smiled. "It doesn't pay much," she responded.

In Michelle's last job, as a vice president of the University of Chicago hospitals, she earned $316,000 annually, almost double her husband's salary as a U.S. senator. The job of first lady, on the other hand, has always paid exactly ... nothing. But perhaps because Michelle Obama is so much more visible than her predecessor, Laura Bush, pundits have been debating whether the Harvard-educated lawyer deserves to pull a paycheck for her full-time duties as a public face of the Obama administration.

In February, Michelle Obama embarked upon an unprecedented tour of federal agencies. She addressed tens of thousands of bureaucrats, thanking them for their service and discussing how her husband's economic-stimulus package would improve each department's work. Michelle, who had previously promised to serve primarily as the "mom in chief," was taking on an explicitly political role, pitching the stimulus legislation even as it remained stalemated in Congress. "The Department of Education is going to be at the forefront of many of the things that we have to do in this administration," Michelle said during a Feb. 2 visit. "With these investments that we hope to make through this stimulus package, we'll be able to prevent teacher layoffs and education cuts in hard-hit states."

The last time a first lady got so involved in a policy debate was in 1993, when Bill Clinton tapped Hillary Clinton to lead his health-care-reform task force. We know how that turned out. Yet even after conservatives drummed Hillary off the Washington policy stage, she remained a potent force within her husband's administration. Hillary's official schedule from those eight years numbers 11,000 pages. And there is little doubt that Barack and Michelle Obama represent a similar "two for the price of one" deal.

"We view his election as a labor contract between not just Barack Obama and the country, but also between Michelle Obama and the country," writes feminist blogger Jaana Goodrich on her blog, Echidne of the Snakes. "Yet she is not getting paid, because she is really viewed as part and parcel of him.

"That assumption is hopelessly retrograde. …

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