What difference could it possibly make whether Michelle Obama's approval rating plunged over 10 percent in the past couple of months, or that she even has any approval ratings? To make things look even worse, the November Gallup Poll that punched out her diminished ratings compared her ratings to Laura Bush, whose numbers never dropped during her first lady years in the White House even as hubby Bush's sunk to the ocean's depths.
Michelle's not the president. She holds no elected office. She's penned no legislation. Heck, she's not even Hillary. Clinton was arguably the closest that any first lady has come to being co-president since Eleanor Roosevelt. Clinton actively campaigned, raised funds, globe-trotted around pushing White House policy initiatives on women's rights, environmental issues, and, of course, her signature issue -- health care.
The surface answer to why Michelle as first lady rates poll numbers is because she's the first the African-American first lady. And as with President Obama, she's the subject of wonderment, pride, gossip, and incessant celebrity voyeurism.
There's a far more compelling reason for the Michelle fixation, good and bad. Despite the GOP pounding of Obama, the angst of liberals and progressives at Obama over Afghanistan, his health care reform water-down, gay rights issues, and voter jitters over the economy and unemployment, he's still wildly popular and virtually universally liked.
Michelle is a different story. She's a woman, a black woman, and a soft target for the frustrations and even scorn of the Obama loathers. During the campaign Obama opponents eagerly latched onto out-of-context statement she made at a campaign rally in which she allegedly questioned her faith in America, and made a supposedly less than reverential reference to the flag. They brutally tarred her as a closet anti-American, race-obsessed, black radical. That made her an instant campaign liability. For weeks she virtually disappeared from the campaign trail. She later reemerged as a much softer role player in the background. She smartly sloughed off any talk that she would be a Hillary-type, White House fill-in for Obama on major policy issues.
This didn't diminish the media's and a wide swath of the public's compulsive looking glass fascination with her. Or their insatiable need to know every bit of motherly, womanly, wifely, and presidential gossip about her. It's made her even more vulnerable to serve as a surrogate to take veiled hits against Obama, no matter how low-key and supportive she's remained. She got knocks for the failed Chicago Olympic bid, and for uttering a few words on health care reform. Her shopping excursions, the couple's date night in New York, and her White House Garden have been ridiculed.
A viral email has been buzzed around the nets and blogs hammering her for her high-salaried and top-heavy staff (legitimate criticism is warranted here). A British tabloid even engaged in malicious mischief when it claimed that Michelle's undergraduate thesis written in 1985 with the hardly incendiary title of "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community" was an open call for black militancy.
Obama's historic win ensured that he'd be the most watched, admired, and reviled president since Lincoln. Michelle's equally historic step into the first lady spot assured that she would be the most watched, admired and reviled first lady since Eleanor. The added draw with her is that she is the back door to knock her still popular husband. This explains the Michelle fixation.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.