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?

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.

Myra Gutin, an expert on first ladies and politics at Rider University in New Jersey, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Some of the criticism [of Obama], quite frankly, has really shocked me.” Gutin noted, “While potential first ladies are not a reason for choosing a presidential candidate, this may come home to roost in a year and a half,” she said. Gutin compared the Obama criticism to Hillary Clinton’s, but made sure to mention that Clinton “was running a bureaucracy of her own,” noting that “it’s quite different” for Obama.

Meanwhile, Republican spouses have free rein to let loose on the president. Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann Romney, blasted “ObamaCare” earlier in the year. Anita Perry, wife of GOP presidential contender Gov. Rick Perry, claimed in a speech, “Mr. President, if Americans have lost their ambition, it’s because you taxed it out of them.”

There’s also Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who cheered supporters for restoring her faith in America — the same sort of language that Michelle Obama used, but without any of the criticism.

While admirable, Hillary Clinton was destined for political fights after her husband said, “I always say that my slogan might well be, ‘Buy one, get one free.’ ” Michelle Obama has advocated for the exact opposite. And while her popularity is a direct result of her toned-down public image, she will have to be even more mindful of her p’s and q’s in this election cycle. If she makes Americans “uncomfortable,” it will punish the president. I bet Ann Romney won’t have to worry about that during her husband’s campaign.

Michael Arceneaux is a Houston-bred, Howard-educated writer currently based in Los Angeles. You can read more of his work on his site. Follow him on Twitter.

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