The High Cost of Mrs. Obama's Popularity

She lost some of her bite, and the approval ratings soared. But why is she still vilified?

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President Obama should use whatever tool he has to help his re-election bid -- including his very nonpolitical wife. But there's something mildly irritating about the fact that Michelle Obama is perceived as his best political asset, yet in order to remain that way, she has to be seen as almost apolitical.

Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University who has studied first ladies, explained to the Washington Post recently, "It's always been safest if you play the loyal-wife card." Jellison compared Obama's role to that of Laura Bush, adding, "I'm not saying I approve, but people can forgive a lot if they know 'Oh, she is just being a loyal spouse.' "

Evidence suggests this to be true. More than 67 percent of Americans have viewed the first lady favorably, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. But as popular as she may be, she's still subjected to rampant criticism. In fact, her backlash rivals that of Hillary Clinton, even though she doesn't make any of the strong political statements Clinton used to deliver when she was first lady.

Even though she's been stripped of any of her edge and bite since the 2008 elections, everything Obama does seems to be fodder for her husband's detractors. Is she held to a different standard than her recent predecessors?

She's been ridiculed repeatedly for stating the obvious about our nation's children as part of her Let's Move campaign, which promotes fitness and healthy eating. As an ex-fatty myself, I appreciated her efforts to get people to mix their vices with veggies and exercise. Unfortunately, Sarah Palin, among others, would have you believe she was Mao Zedong with a meal plan because of it.

Former first ladies Barbara and Laura Bush worked to end illiteracy, and Nancy Reagan took on teenage drug use. None of these women was criticized as harshly for their efforts. The same can be said of the first lady's advocacy for breast-feeding, which Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann claimed was a "new definition of the nanny state."

There was also flak from vacation nazis who painted her as Marie Antoinette because she went to Spain largely on her own dime. Somehow, goodwill trips to Africa were misconstrued, too. Stateside, American designer Oscar de la Renta chided her for wearing a gown by Brit Alexander McQueen to the China state dinner in January.

When Barack Obama entered the presidential race, Republicans used her as means of chipping away at his likability. It started with the push to portray the couple as un-American, based on her now infamous remarks, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change."

At the time, I admired her because she represented a changing reality for many black families, in which the wife was outperforming the husband professionally and financially. But her candidness about her feelings about America made me appreciate her even more. It lent voice to the millions of blacks who felt the same way.

Naturally, she was vilified for it and had to "retool" her messaging. While she continues to speak her truth, it's with a lot less bite. Nevertheless, she still manages to catch the same degree of condemnation from the opposition.