Michelle Obama: More Laura Than Hillary?

The country needs more moxie from Michelle and less traditional first lady.

First ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama at the African First Ladies Summit in Tanzania (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
First ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama at the African First Ladies Summit in Tanzania (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Although her husband generated most of the headlines during the first family’s trip to Africa, Michelle Obama recently generated some of her own. Last week she joined her predecessor, Laura Bush, at a Summit for African First Ladies, hosted by the George W. Bush Foundation. Obama’s remarks there stirred some controversy when she likened life in the first lady fishbowl to “prison.”

“There are prisonlike elements, but it’s a really nice prison,” she said, adding, “You can’t complain.” The very fact that the comments were picked up, and picked apart, reflects just how right she is about the prisonlike existence that comes with the role of first lady.

But the rare side-by-side sighting of the two women also raises interesting questions — namely, whether America is still a place that prefers its first ladies to be seen and rarely heard, like Laura Bush, or if it can finally handle women who are heard loud and clear, like Hillary Clinton? And where does Michelle Obama’s legacy fit into this dichotomy?

As Bush and Obama compared notes, it became clear that there are commonalities that bond them and all members of the so-called First Ladies Club, regardless of age or political party. One commonality is the fact that their wardrobes and appearance are dissected more than their husbands’ ever were or will be.

At first glance it may seem that this is where the commonalities end for these two women. Laura Bush was raised in the affluent oil town of Midland, Texas, where her future husband was a childhood classmate. She would remain in Texas for most of her adult life, attending Southern Methodist University as an undergraduate and the University of Texas for graduate school.

After working as an elementary school teacher and school librarian, she reconnected with, and married, George W. Bush, scion of an already established American political dynasty. She would go on to become one of the most popular and least controversial first ladies in U.S. history, with an approval rating of 73 percent, nearly 20 points higher than that of her predecessor Hillary Clinton.

By contrast, Michelle Obama was raised in a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago. She would pursue higher education in the Ivy league, first as an undergraduate at Princeton University and then at Harvard Law School, which her future husband also attended. Pursuing a career at a major law firm and later in government, she would become the breadwinner of the family as her husband slowly climbed his way up the political ladder from community organizer to president.

She would then become one of the most controversial spouses of a presidential candidate on record, with a 2008 campaign remark — “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country” — haunting her on the trail and framing her as an angry black woman in the eyes of some Americans. But she has gone on to stage one of the most incredible comebacks in American history. While her favorability rating stood at 54 percent during the 2008 campaign, it has remained near 66 percent since her husband took office, reaching a high of 68 percent when he was sworn in.

It’s hard not to wonder if that is because Michelle Obama has undergone a Laura Bush-like first lady makeover during her time in the public eye.