Evaluations of Michelle Obama as First Lady: The Role of Racial Resentment

By Knuckey, Jonathan; Kim, Myunghee | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2016 | Go to article overview

Evaluations of Michelle Obama as First Lady: The Role of Racial Resentment


Knuckey, Jonathan, Kim, Myunghee, Presidential Studies Quarterly


At the height of the race for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama made the following comment: "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country ... not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change" (quoted in Cooper 2008). This comment was clearly made in the context of the level of engagement exhibited, especially among younger voters, in the Obama candidacy. However, it was viewed by others as evidence of a lack of patriotism, and even anti-Americanism. For example, conservative commentator William Kristol wrote that "Michelle Obama's adult life goes back to the mid-1980s. Can it really be the case that nothing the U.S. achieved since then has made her proud?" (Kristol 2008). At the same time, Cindy McCain, wife of the presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, remarked: "I am proud of my country. I don't know about you, if you heard those words earlier--I am very proud of my country" (quoted in Cooper 2008). The remarks aimed at questioning the patriotism of Michelle Obama--which she was compelled to reaffirm in a later interview--were perhaps of the type that might have been directed at presidential candidates rather than their spouses. In many respects such criticism provided a harbinger of the nature of some of the criticism directed toward the First Lady during the Obama presidency.

As First Lady, Michelle Obama has engaged in the type of nonpartisan advocacy of valence issues commonly associated with the "traditional" role of the First Lady that continues to comport to the role expected among the public (Burrell 1999; Parry-Giles and Blair 2002; Stokes 2005). However, the reaction to Michelle Obama has often appeared to be more motivated by partisanship. For example, in February 2010, the First Lady championed "Let's Move," an initiative to address poor eating habits and obesity among school children. However, conservative critics were quick to denounce this as the intrusion of big government. Former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, was a notable critic. After personally bringing cookies to a school in Pennsylvania, Palin gave a speech, noting, "Who should be deciding what I eat? Should it be government or should it be parents? It should be the parents" (quoted in Wing 2010). In February 2013, the First Lady made a satellite appearance from the White House at the Academy Awards to announce "Argo" as winner of the Best Picture award. This prompted criticism from some conservatives about the appropriateness of a First Lady appearing at the Academy Awards (Cirrili 2013), despite the fact that Laura Bush had also done so in 2002. A trip to China in March 2014 by Michelle Obama to promote cultural exchange programs also drew criticism as being a tax-funded vacation, given that the First Lady was also accompanied by her two daughters and her mother (Joachim 2014). When Michelle Obama did talk candidly about race and overcoming racial prejudice, such as at a commencement ceremony address at Tuskegee University in May 2015, some critics accused her of sounding "angry" and playing the "race card" (Capehart 2015).

As the first African American First Lady, the role of race and racial attitudes in shaping opinions about Michelle Obama cannot be ignored. Using data from the American National Election Studies (ANES), (1) this article examines whether racial attitudes, specifically racial resentment (Kinder and Sanders 1996; Kinder and Sears 1981; Sears and Kinder 1971), explain evaluations of Michelle Obama. More generally, the article seeks to make a contribution to understanding the dynamics underlying approval of First Ladies, a topic that Burrell, Elder, and Frederick (2011) and Sulfaro (2007) have suggested requires greater scholarly attention. Of course, the well-documented partisan polarization in American politics (see, e.g., Abramowitz 2010; Abramowitz and Saunders 2008; Black and Black 2007; Layman and Carsey 2002) has likely been a contributing factor in explaining the increasingly partisan evaluations of the spouses of presidents and presidential candidates (Burrell, Elder, and Frederick 2011; Sulfaro 2007). …

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