When First Lady Michelle Obama joins her husband at his public inauguration next week, the most immediate question for many in the audience will be, “Who is she wearing?”
But while the first lady's style at the swearing in and balls will no doubt generate headlines, the occasion presents a larger question about what her role will be in her husband’s second term.
Michelle Obama's choice of attire are among the few genuine unknowns surrounding the President Barack Obama's second term inaugural. And while it may seem laughable to some, it’s an endorsement that could potentially mean millions of dollars in new business for a designer. Her decision to wear a flowing ivory gown by young designer Jason Wu to the inaugural balls four years ago made the young designer a major force in the fashion industry, which is watching Obama's 2013 choice closely.
“The inauguration is being anticipated almost like a royal wedding” within the fashion industry, said New York University business professor David Yermack, who authored a 2010 study that found a company benefits an average $14 million when the first lady is photographed in one of their designs.
It’s a result that bests even some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities—and Yermack estimates the figure may have increased in the years since amid the public’s continued interest in Michelle Obama, who has transformed from a trendy working mom into a fashion icon and the most popular figure in the White House.
That popularity has given the first lady enormous political capital to spend—some of which she used in championing her husband’s bid for re-election last year. But the biggest unknown is how willing she might be to use her capital to advance the president’s second term agenda, as he prepares to potentially tackle tricky issues like gun control, immigration and education reform.
Over the last four years, the first lady has carved out a careful position within her husband’s administration.
Pushing back against critics who fretted that she would be, in her words, an “angry black woman,” her embrace of non-ideological causes like fighting childhood obesity and helping military families has been well received by the public. A recent Gallup Poll found the first lady with a 65 percent approval rating—more than 10 points higher than her husband’s.
“She’s used her role very effectively in order to help her husband’s re-election and advance causes she thinks are important,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “But what she would do if unconstrained by the traditional role of being first lady is an open question… She’s a powerful surrogate. But how far would she be willing to go to help her husband on issues that are more divisive?”
So far, it’s a question the first lady hasn’t answered. In an interview with People magazine in December, she gave a somewhat vague response when asked how much she might try to help her husband lobby the public on issues over the next four years.
I’m not one for lip service so I become very practical about what I can do because I have limited powers,” Obama said, adding that she would continue to work on issues of military families and obesity because “we’re not done yet.”
That careful answer reflects how much she works to guard her image as first lady. Since arriving in office, Obama has sought to chart a course that allows her to leave a legacy but also doesn’t clash with the “Mom-in-chief” position she said she wanted to maintain upon arriving at the White House.
It hasn’t been easy. Obama is currently on her third chief-of-staff since 2009, and her office has seen an unusually high amount of turnover compared to other first ladies. It’s all been credited to what many say is the grueling hours and expectations of an Ivy League-educated former hospital executive turned first lady who pays close attention to how she is regarded publicly and takes a hands on role in managing her team.
It’s a measure of discipline that has prompted some to be careful about what they say about Michelle Obama and her agenda. Her office declined to comment for this story—as did a half dozen former staffers and friends close to Obama.
At a forum on first ladies last year, Susan Sher, a longtime Obama friend who served as her second chief of staff, summed up her former boss’s work mantra.
“Our job,” Sher said, paraphrasing Obama, “is not to solve Afghanistan, it’s to add value to the administration. And if we’re not doing that, then we should just stay home.”
At the same time, West Wing aides were said to have been irritated by public missteps by the first lady, including when she was photographed wearing a pair of $500 Lanvin sneakers for a volunteer event in the White House garden and for a summer vacation in Spain that cost taxpayers nearly $500,000, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the conservative group Judicial Watch.
But Michelle Obama's image never suffered with the public, according to polls. And like other first ladies before her, Obama helped her husband win a second term, in part, by humanizing him. Speaking at the Democratic National Convention last August, she insisted that her husband “knows the American dream because he’s lived it.”
It was a clear attempt to contrast her husband with his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who grew up wealthy—though she never once mentioned Romney’s name. It was the most political speech Michelle Obama had ever given—and an example of what she could do to help her husband when it comes to advocating for his policies.
But even as some Democrats have encouraged her to expand beyond her two signature issues—obesity and military families—Obama has given no hint that she will do so. And according to historians, most first ladies tend to play it safe.
“Presidents and first ladies usually have a greater tendency to ‘be themselves’ in a second term,” says Ohio University professor Katherine Jellison, an expert on first ladies. But, she added, first ladies typically just expand on initiatives they've already talked about.
During her husband's first term, First Lady Nancy Reagan came up with the idea of the "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign. But she didn't fully embrace the push until after her husband was re-elected. Among other things, she famously starred in a music video called "Stop the Madness" featuring stars like Whitney Houston, New Edition and LaToya Jackson.
Laura Bush was notoriously press shy during her tenure in the White House, choosing to focus on safe issues like promoting literacy and early childhood education. But while her husband's popularity plummeted amid public angst over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush, who boasted an average 70 percent approval rating, spent her political capital to work towards ending the AIDS crisis in Africa.
Obama had perhaps the most in common with Hillary Clinton, who, like Obama, was a lawyer before she was first lady. But Clinton became a controversial figure in her husband's first term when she led a failed effort to reform health care. She embraced a lower profile and more traditional role in the second term--though part of that may have been beyond her control as her husband weathered a scandal over his relationship with a former White House intern. Still, Clinton went on to make history, running for and winning New York's open Senate seat during her final year in the White House.
Pointing to history, Jellison predicted Obama is unlikely to make dramatic changes to her tenure as first lady--given that the Obamas, like past occupants of the White House, are now looking to their "historical reputation."
“Although Michelle Obama may be more open about certain issues in the second term than she was in the first, no one should expect a radical departure from her past rhetoric and behavior,” Jellison said.