Has Michelle Obama's N.H. Speech Set a New Bar for Influential First Ladies?

By Lindsay, Rowena | The Christian Science Monitor, October 14, 2016 | Go to article overview

Has Michelle Obama's N.H. Speech Set a New Bar for Influential First Ladies?


Lindsay, Rowena, The Christian Science Monitor


A day after several women came forward to accuse Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump of unwanted touching and groping, first lady Michelle Obama denounced the candidate's "sexually predatory behavior" in a speech on Thursday in New Hampshire that many pundits are calling the second-best of this election season.

The first lady comes in second only to herself, after giving a similarly well-received speech at the Democratic National Convention in July in support of Democratic presidential candidate and former secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While first ladies have often campaigned for their husbands and given political speeches, the sway Mrs. Obama currently has with American voters and the elevated political platform on which she stands is an uncommon role for a presidential spouse in an election cycle.

"This is highly unusual to have the first family campaigning so strongly for their would-be successors," Katherine Jellison, the department of history chair at Ohio University and an expert on first ladies, tells the Christian Science Monitor. "It is unprecedented that a sitting first lady campaigning for anyone other than her husband would be giving two such high profile campaign speeches."

During her appearance on Thursday, Obama laid aside her usual campaign speech and spoke emotionally, as a concerned citizen and mother, calling on the country "to stand up and say enough is enough" in light of recently surfaced tapes from 2005 that recorded Mr. Trump boasting about his aggressive sexual behavior toward women.

"This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior and actually bragging about kissing and groping women using language so obscene that many of us were worried about our children hearing it when we turn on the TV," Obama said. "To dismiss this as everyday locker room talk is an insult to decent men everywhere."

It is Obama's relatability, particularly with young people, that first made her a desirable campaign speaker, says Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta.

"She was initially being deployed so that she could reach out to groups that Hillary Clinton might have had trouble reaching out to, in particular young people," Professor Gillespie tells the Monitor. "Michelle Obama comes off as natural and authentic and it is something that really appeals to young people in that particular demographic. That is a group she can relate to because she has children who are in that age bracket."

Not all scholars see her active campaign schedule in the past few months as a shift away from the traditional role of the first lady, however. …

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