Get ready for First Lady Michelle Obama. The youngest first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy is gearing up to become the most visible wife and mom in America. And as an African American woman, Michelle is going to be a role model for black women across the country and a “shatterer” of negative stereotypes.

We may get to see few examples of positive black male stereotypes, but we get to see even fewer of black women. Black women are caricatured as angry, domineering women who are always waiting for the right opportunity to say, “mmhmm”. Michelle is going to change that.

This was the theme of the December 1st edition of Newsweek, which featured Michelle on its cover, with an article entitled, “What Michelle Obama Means to Us”.

Michelle Obama is a strong woman, but not an angry one. She speaks of her husband lovingly in interviews, playfully mocking him to show their bond. According to the US Census American Community Survey in 2000, over 40% of black women have never been married, compared to only 21% of white women. The Obamas together will showcase what a happy marriage can be to all Americans, and to African Americans specifically.

Michelle is also one of the few really dark-skinned women considered beautiful in mainstream America. She has neither the fair skin nor Causcasian-looking features of Tyra Banks, the first African American on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition, or Halle Berry, Esquire’s 2008 Sexiest Woman Alive. Michelle is a more accurate representation of black women in America.

The Newsweek article quotes a California woman named Charisse Hollands as saying, “When I see Michelle Obama on the cover of magazines and on TV shows, I think, wow, look at her and her brown skin. And I don’t mean any disrespect to my sisters who aren’t dark brown, but gee, it’s nice to see a brown girl get some attention and be called beautiful by the world. That just doesn’t happen a lot, and our little girls need to see that—my little girl needs to see it.”

Responses to Newsweek’s article were both positive and negative, but the negative responses had nothing to do with Michelle. Those disapproving were put off by writer Alison Samuels’ ideas about race. Letters claimed that Michelle would be an inspiration to all American women.

A white female reader from Illinois wrote, “Michelle Obama is a role model for my demographic as well… The modern American woman – race notwithstanding – has arrived.”

Though Michelle is still viewed negatively by some fierce McCain supporters who disliked her from the beginning of the campaign, it is evident that there is much excitement surrounding her move to the White House. The enthusiasm comes from all over the world, with international news sources eagerly anticipating her presence on the world stage.

The United Kingdom’s Times Online wrote in “Michelle Obama: a new type of First Lady” that, “everything about this woman speaks to the modern, post-feminist woman: she is manifestly clever, independently minded, attractive in a normal, accessible way (and not in a scary, plastic-fantastic Cindy way). Her demeanour is a reassuring mixture of sassy and self-deprecating; her easy, confident dress sense neither too sexy nor too self-conscious.”

The article contrasted her with recent and current Republican first ladies Barbara and Laura Bush, admiring what the writer sees as a stronger, more intellectual outlook on being a First Lady. Though the Bush women are intelligent, they did not see it as their place to present such an image.

“Perhaps the most exciting thing about Michelle however is what having a woman lawyer like her in the White House means. For it is not often one can go to sleep safe in the knowledge that there is an educated, intelligent, sensible female voice being heard in the corridors of power,” the article concludes.

(Former First Lady Hillary Clinton, also a lawyer, did not project as warm an image as Michelle, and her supporters came later.)

Barack Obama’s election has created a flurry of excitement through the United States and the world at large, but it seems that his wife Michelle has been a contributing factor. From her intelligence, her charity projects, her style, to her parenting, Michelle Obama will be an icon for at least the next four years. She is the new face of black women, working mothers, and Americans.

Hopefully she will live up to the hype.

Barack Obama became our nation’s president elect last month. Did his wife, Michelle Obama, help him win?

Cindy McCain, who this blog has already explored, was not a major player in her husband’s campaign. She mostly remained in the shadows and rarely campaigned without John McCain.

In contrast, Michelle was a vocal part of the Obama camp. Too vocal, said many. At the beginning of the campaign, she was considered too outspoken, and was harshly rebuked for commenting that she was proud of her country for the first time in her adult life.

However, Michelle toned it down and played the role of supportive, adoring wife. She playfully mocked her husband, revealing his human side, which is what voters often look for from a candidate’s spouse. She often attracted large crowds when campaigning alone.

According to a national poll on CNN.com, 59% of voters thought Michelle Obama would make a good first lady, compared to 53% who thought the same of Cindy McCain. Of those saying Michelle would be a good first lady, 77% voted for her husband. Only 71% who liked Cindy voted for John McCain. Therefore, there is a stronger correlation between approving of the spouse of a candidate and voting for that candidate in the Obamas’ case.

What set Michelle apart from Cindy McCain was that she is personable. Cindy was often accused of seeming robotic and unaffectionate. A funny example of this is shown in this video by the satirical news website, theonion.com:

As the much more relatable, less “creepy” spouse, Michelle may have helped her husband clinch the election. (Although this is, of course, all just extra support – political science models called the election for Obama long before November 4th.)

Aside from his wife, Barack had a powerful tool to appeal to voters’ softer sides: his children. His two young daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, were somewhat visible during the campaign. A notable appearance was at the Democratic National Convention, when Sasha repeatedly interrupted her father as he spoke via live video feed.

The convention audience laughed and clapped at her antics, and, judging by the title and description of the video on YouTube, Americans at home also found Sasha irresistibly adorable.

School-age children in the White House are fun for Americans. “First Children” can generate as much excitement as the First Lady. Undecided voters may have subconsciously leaned towards the candidate whose family inspired more “wholesome American family”-feeling. (John McCain has seven children, only one of whom campaigned for him. His only daughter still living with him, seventeen-year-old Bridget, was shielded from the spotlight.)

The Obama girls have already graced the covers of weekly gossip magazines People and Us Weekly. The latter’s edition immediately following the election featured Barack embracing his daughters, with the headline, “‘I Think I’m A Pretty Cool Dad’”. (The media has apparently failed to notice the irony behind the endless articles it has been producing about how to shield First Children from the spotlight.)

Us Weekly regularly includes a photo-spread entitled “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!”, labeling photos of celebrities doing mundane activities with captions like “they buy toilet paper!” and “they drink multiple lattes!” The president-elect was given his own multi-photograph “Just Like Us” section.

It was this phenomenon, perhaps, that helped Barack Obama. His personable, loving wife, along with his smiling children, endeared his family and his image to Americans.

Meet Todd Palin, a handsome man in his forties, father of five, and four-time winner of the Iron Dog snowmobile race. He’s worked in a variety of fields, including oil and commercial fishing. His next position may be your “Second Gentleman” or, as he and his wife, Republican vice-presidential candidate and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, prefer, “Second Dude”.

So what can Todd Palin do for his wife’s candidacy? Mr. Palin appears with his wife often, but rarely speaks publicly. He comes across as a manly man, but is described as a hockey dad and is usually with his children, so he contributes to the “family values” ideal that Sarah associates herself with.

As his wife is the first woman Republican vice-presidential candidate, Mr. Palin is unusual in our time in that he is male. Bill Clinton appeared on Fox News (see video below) and gave advice to Todd. “If you’re [a] husband and the woman is in the… political role traditionally identified with men, the trick is to give support that is unambiguously clear… Also, be there with advice. Privately… Do it in a way that doesn’t… make her look weak.”

It remains to be seen how he would act should the McCain/Palin ticket win the election, but as Alaska’s “First Dude”, he has done what is traditionally seen with First Ladies – given up his career in favor of assisting his spouse during her time in office.

However, there is much controversy surrounding Todd. He is not just supportive of his wife’s work; he is by some accounts overly involved to the point of being inappropriate. Alaska legislators say that the married couple is often referred to as a team, with Todd as his wife’s “de facto chief of staff”. Todd has been known to sit in on Sarah’s meetings and receive copies of official emails.

Many Alaskans refute charges of inappropriate involvement by explaining that Alaskan politics is different than mainland politics. They argue that personal and public are mixed in the under-populated state. While this argument may account for Todd’s actions, it doesn’t help his relatability. It only further underscores the difference between Alaska and the continental US, something that may make voters weary of Sarah Palin taking office in DC.

This is additionally promoted by Todd’s former membership in the Alaskan Independence Party. The party’s main goal is to secede from the union.

Todd is also part Yupik Eskimo. As a Native Alaskan, he helped get Sarah support from other natives. She used his race (1/4 Eskimo) to garner votes, however their support waned after she promoted policies that hurt them.

It is evident that Todd Palin creates some problems for his wife’s candidacy, but he is also a plus when view as both a rugged, manly man, and a supportive husband and father.

Is America ready for a Second Dude? A Second Dude who is outside the continental American mainstream? A Second Dude who will likely follow the vice-president and advise her in all her duties?

We’ll find out soon.

Bill Clinton Gives Advice To Todd Palin:

 

Sources:

Kaye, Randi. “Todd Palin: ‘first dude’ or ‘shadow governor?'” Cnn.com. 19 Sept. 2008.CNN.4 Nov. 2008 <http://www.cnn.com/2008/politics/09/19/todd.palin/index.html&gt;.

 

Khalid, Kiran, and Lee Ferran. “Meet Todd Palin, Potentially America’s First Second Man.” Abcnews.com. 5 Sept. 2008.ABC News.4 Nov. 2008 <http://abcnews.go.com/gma/conventions/story?id=5733591&page=1&gt;.

 

MacGillis, Alec, and Karl Vick. “‘First Dude’ Todd Palin Illustrates Alaska’s Blend of Private and Public.” Washingtonpost.com. 22 Sept. 2008.Washington Post.4 Nov. 2008 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2008/09/22/st2008092200075.html&gt;.

 

Miller, Marjorie. “Todd Palin, husband of Sarah Palin: a ‘true Alaskan'” Latimes.com. 7 Sept. 2008.Los Angeles Times.4 Nov. 2008 <http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-na-todd7-2008sep07,0,5840737.story&gt;.

For much of the campaign, Michelle Obama was getting significantly more press than Cindy McCain. In fact, a May study by Pew Research Center found that Michelle Obama was the lead newsmaker in more than three times the amount of news stories as was Cindy McCain.

Last week, McCain garnered a lot of press, much to the dismay of her husband’s campaign staff and her own lawyer.

The New York Times profiled Mrs. McCain, and while the liberal-leaning newspaper included positives about her, the overall impression given was negative.

The article painted a picture of a woman separated from her husband for five out of every seven days and cold towards him in public. Yet the article gave the creepy impression that Cindy is obsessed with John, describing their home, which she decorated alone, as “a shrine to her husband.”

The article brought up old scandals, namely the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal of 1989, and her drug addiction. Mrs. McCain headed a charity, the American Voluntary Medical Team, which she disbanded in 1994 after admitting to an addiction to painkillers and to stealing drugs from the charity.

McCain’s lawyer, John M. Dowd, responded to the article, accusing the Times of shady practices and reopening old wounds. Dowd said that sources used for the piece were unreliable and that the reporting was not news, but merely an attempt to recreate negative feelings toward McCain.

McCain/Palin spokesman Michael Goldfarb issued a statement alleging similar charges. The statement also claimed that the Times sought to dupe a minor (a friend of Bridget McCain) into leading a reporter to unflattering information about Cindy.

The Goldfarb statement called the Times’ piece “gutter journalism at its worst — an unprecedented attack on a presidential candidate’s spouse.” Yet attacks on candidate’s spouses are common.

Cindy McCain has been portrayed negatively throughout the campaign by the media and voters. A quick YouTube search for “Cindy McCain” brings up few legitimate news sources and many videos accusing the potential first lady of being a liar.

Mrs. McCain comes off as cold and doesn’t give John the “family man” feel that other spouses create for the candidates. She has none of the “folksy” appeal of Sarah Palin, and she doesn’t tell any stories that give voters a personal feel for either herself or her husband. As discussed in the last entry, these are the things that voters look for when assessing a candidate through his/her spouse.

McCain may be a liability for her husband. It doesn’t help matters that she is his second wife – younger, prettier, and richer than his first, who he left after an accident left her disfigured.

Interestingly, Obama’s campaign has not attacked Mrs. McCain, though her drug addiction and involvement in a money scandal seem to make her viable. However, through the media and independent groups, she is getting enough disapproving attention to possibly turn voters away from John McCain.

The answer? America.

At first thought, it seems a little ridiculous to study the backgrounds and behaviors of the spouses of presidential and vice-presidential candidates. After all, they’re not the ones running for office, so their political views don’t count, and that’s all that matters, right?

Well, this actually isn’t so. Voters don’t know about all of the issues and they don’t usually vote with their brains. They vote with their hearts. The spouses of candidates play an important role in voters’ perceptions of the candidates’ personal qualities.

Spouses are judged on their physical appearances, occupations, and backgrounds. Voters then use this information to infer what the candidate is like in their personal lives, which is important to voters.

A Newsweek survey conducted last October found that 57% of voters felt that a candidate’s relationship with his or her spouse revealed what sort of president the candidate would be.

In a poll conducted by CBS News in late June, 60% of voters said that a candidate’s spouse was either very or somewhat important to their vote. This figure differed across certain groups, with women more likely than men to deem spouses important. Republicans cared more about spouses than Democrats or independents, and older voters cared more than younger ones.

The media and the opposing parties follow candidates’ spouses closely. Anything that a spouse does or says can be used in an attack on the actual contender for office. In the past, politicians’ wives and husbands have been criticized for anything from their own previous spouses to refusing to leave their jobs to go on the campaign trail.

In a May appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America, Barack Obama said, “If they think that they’re going to try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign, they should be careful because that I find unacceptable. For them to try to distort or to play snippets of her remarks in ways that are unflattering to her, I think is just low class.”

Yet Michelle Obama has become an issue in this presidential election, and her husband’s staff acknowledges this. On barackobama.com, a lengthy biography of Michelle is included in the same section as those of Barack Obama and Joe Biden. There is also one for Jill Biden. On johnmccain.com, Cindy McCain has a page devoted to her. Interestingly, Todd Palin, the lone husband of a candidate, does not have a biography on the website.

Check back here over the next few weeks to see assessments of Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain, Jill Biden, and Todd Palin, and how each is affecting their spouse’s campaign.

 

 

For further reading:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2007/10/22/ST2007102202317.html?hpid=topnews

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/Vote2008/Story?id=4887782&page=1

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E04E2DE113CF93BA1575BC0A9619C8B63