The First Lady

Dana Goldstein has been looking at the role Michelle Obama will play, and the office of the First Lady in general:

The Obama people are smart. They clearly believe this image of Michelle is an important one to impart. It’s even more astounding when you consider who the messenger is in this case: Jarrett is the person who initially recruited Michelle Obama to work in the Daley administration. So first, Jarrett encourages Michelle to get into policy and politics. Then, years later, Jarrett is on TV reassuring everyone the woman has no interest in such things.

Presidents routinely take advice from the people around them, including members of their family — think of JFK’s relationship with Bobby, or George Bush Sr. making Dubya his campaign manager. All over this world, spouses and partners spout off to one another about what they think the other one should be doing in their career. Many of us choose to spend our lives with someone whose opinions we respect on these matters, and whose intelligence and interests match our own. And yet, we somehow expect presidents to shield their wives from politics and not take their counsel? Even if the wife in question is a whip-smart politico herself? It’s like “Mad Men.” And it’s getting ridiculous.

Frankly, I take the exact opposite opinion Goldstein has. What I find backwards, and downright odd, is the general focus on candidates’ spouses in general. I mean, who questions the chops of a banker’s wife, and expects him to seek out her advice when it comes to doing his job? Which isn’t to say that I think First Ladies, or Dudes, ought not be “advising” their spouse, just that I think it’s odd that we de facto assume they are, or should be.

And let’s be honest, there is something untoward about an elected official’s spouse, female or male (see Palin, Todd) actively inserting themselves into governance. No one elects them, nor confirms them. Yes, JFK may have made Robert Attorney General, but that post is subject to Senate confirmation. Campaign manager is a matter of campaigning, not governing, and a candidate is free to make whatever decisions they want to make, good or bad. If Bush 41 had tried to make Dubya, say, his Chief of Staff, I think we’d have had a fairly big problem on our hands.

And I should say that I, personally, have no problem if the President wants to take advice from their spouse, or if they want to turn over a part of their political agenda to them a la Hillary and healthcare. But I certainly understand the sentiment that these things are a little unseemly, indeed I often felt some of the details we learned about Todd Palin’s role in Alaska were a bit out of line. But I think we ought not assume that all First Ladies should be, or want to be, political advisers or active members of the political operation in the White House, anymore than we expect Joe the Plumber’s wife to be able to fix our sink.