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Rebecca Sive

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Kantor Book Dust-up Misses the Point: Michelle Obama Could Be This Generation's Eleanor Roosevelt

Posted: 01/12/12 12:35 PM ET

As she made clear Tuesday morning in an interview with CBS's Gayle King, the clear-headed and brilliant, knows-what-she-wants-at-all-times Michelle Obama is no kind of stereotypical "angry black woman." In fact, Michelle Obama is no kind of (publicly) angry woman of any kind. Quite to the contrary (her "MO": hug everybody). And therein lies the teachable moment to draw from the hours of conversation stirred-up by the publication of Jodi Kantor's The Obamas.

There are many different vantage points from which to examine the Obamas. Millions of words have been written, and thousands of pages have been printed doing just that. But, separating the wheat from the chaff, what I find most interesting about them is from this vantage point: the Obamas' choice to present themselves as a conventional 1950s family, so at-odds with the American family norm of today.

Lest you doubt this, see the mind-boggling cover drawing for USA Weekend, November 25-27, 2011 (Thanksgiving weekend) edition. It's a drawing of the Obamas, derived quite literally from a Norman Rockwell painting, in which drawing Princeton and Harvard-educated Michelle Obama, apron on, is serving turkey. It's preposterous, really. We know Michelle Obama doesn't spend her time putting her apron on and cooking turkey. We know the Obamas have had cooks for years. So what's up with that?

Another image conjured-up by this Rockwellian drawing is American wife, who, if publicly engaged, is only engaged in homespun activities benefiting women and children -- like gardening, reading to children, and teaching children how to be healthier. Just what Michelle Obama is doing as first lady. More 1950s in the 2000s.

And one final image from USA Weekend: Only the president, perhaps needless to say at this point, is all suited-up, ready to venture out into the "real" world.

While I understand why the Obamas drew this picture of themselves, and why they will continue to make political calculations, and create political images of this sort, especially when it comes to Michelle Obama; while I even understand why the first lady is portrayed, as part of "Our 2011 Holiday Letter," as significantly shorter than the president -- just because that "angry black woman" stereotype is so potent -- to put it mildly, I, like many other admirers of Michelle Obama, chafe at it.

And I don't chafe because I wish the first lady were, instead, running some Fortune 500 corporation. Far from it. I chafe because I, like millions of other American women voters, love the fact that this first lady (only the second who does) comes to the job with male-world-gained, powerful professional credentials, along with a superlative education in a male-dominated profession. Consequently, we revel in the notion of what this first lady is capable of; oh, say, making this world of ours a much better place, with almost just a wave of the hand. (Wal-Mart, say, can do lots of things for her that it's not yet doing.)

While we also recognize that Michelle Obama's education and experience aren't requisite to our gold standard first lady (think Eleanor Roosevelt, whose formal education ended at age 17), we wonder: what's up with this? It doesn't make sense, either. Even without her education Roosevelt became an activist and outspoken proponent of social justice.

I'm clear on this because, like Eleanor Roosevelt's, Michelle Obama's arc bends towards justice. Kantor's book is tantalizing on this point. She writes that Michelle Obama is interested in transformational public policies, e.g., healthcare reform, not politics as usual.

So, the questions arise -- is Michelle Obama doing what she really wants? Is she OK with her current public image and public activities? If she is OK, and doing (publicly) what she wants, is this because she is, as many Chicagoans could attest, a smart political (with a small "p") operative, in this case the political operative as political wife who always "has her husband's back?" Or has this old-timey image been foisted on her by her husband's political advisers, making her go so far as to have to set up the straw (wo)man, the "angry black woman," to beat back presumptively bad press for a president who can't win re-election without pulling "independent" (read: white, not-hard-core Democrats) to his side? (They need to be reassured she's one of them.)

I don't know the answers to these questions. But I do know that when I worked with Michelle Obama, she had great presence and commitment to social justice. So while the stereotype of the "angry black woman" is one which, twenty history-making years in from those days, a would-be second-term first lady and president would do well to steer clear of, I also think that the American public would welcome and participate in, as Chicago did, an invitation from Michelle Obama to help make the world a better place.

A note to the president's political handlers: You have nothing to fear from this new Michelle Obama as first lady, one whose arc bending towards justice would be apparent to all. Why? Because, uniquely, first lady Michelle Obama has the power and the platform to make the rest of us feel better, and, then, as a consequence, to do better for the country we love. Working at a food pantry every week; visiting a homeless shelter every week; leading a neighborhood clean-up project every week; counseling young people looking for jobs every week, the mind (again) boggles; this time at the opportunities to do good that we could all undertake, led by this new Michelle Obama as first lady.

A further note to you political handlers: I can tell you that, based on conversations I've had with all kinds of women -- from sophisticated Upper West Side New York, and Gold Coast Chicago plutocrats, to blue-collar housekeepers in poor, rural Michigan, to inner-city social workers -- I've heard the same thing, admiration for Michelle Obama. She is everything they aspire to be: smart, beautiful, a good mother and daughter, a loving partner, loved always by her husband, no questions (apparently) asked. Thus, in my view, if Michelle Obama takes on another substantial activity, public leadership for the greater good of the least among us, they will follow her, in droves.

It is in this winning (public opinion and votes) context that Michelle Obama could be this generation's Eleanor Roosevelt, not the stereotypical "angry black woman," but yes, an angry black woman. She could be just as angry as her angry white, brown, yellow and red sisters, who in this campaign year would stand with her and say: "Yes, we are angry. Angry because America still has hungry and homeless people. Angry because America has too many people who want to work, but can't find jobs. Angry because America these days works for few, when it's supposed to work "...for all."

Come this Election Day, with this campaign plan, I believe American voters will admire Michelle Obama even more than they do today, for she will have stood tall (she knows no other way) and said what time it is: time to help America, all of America. The voters will flock to her husband in droves. We will all have his back. Just what our first lady wants most of all.

 
 
 

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