Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Michelle Obama: The Popular New Girl at the First Ladies' Lunch Table

A recent article published by Dalia Sussman in the New York Times reported that Michelle Obama has thus far received the highest ratings of any first lady in the past 28 years. The poll, taken by the New York Times and CBS News, indicates that currently, about half of Americans polled (49%) view Ms. Obama favorably, 44% have not yet formulated an opinion, and only 5% view her unfavorably. 

The article mentions that the other first ladies of the past quarter century have generally received approval ratings of about 30% with the exception of Hillary Rodham Clinton, of whom 44% approved. These polls were all taken within the preliminary months of their husbands' terms in office. 

What I found most interesting was that women are, at this point, more likely than men to rate Michelle Obama positively; 56% of females polled approved of Ms. Obama as opposed to only 41% of men. We've recently been commenting a great deal on our first lady's representation in the media, particularly with respect to her role as a mother. Is Michelle Obama's crafted image as a doting mother and wife significantly changing the way the public sees her? Do American women find Michelle Obama's relatively new sense of femininity and style relatable and appealing? It seems that the womanhood portrayed so publicly by Michelle Obama does strike a chord with females, and although men generally do approve of her role as first lady as well, they find her image less admirable or respectable than do American women. But has she always been seen so positively, or are her ratings actually improving with time?

The answer is that no, Michelle Obama hasn't always been so universally admired. Sussman notes that "during the presidential campaign last year, Mrs. Obama's opponents cast her as unpatriotic and carrying racial anger, prompting questions about whether she might be a political liability for her husband." Another article published in the Telegraph by Alex Spillius back in January points out that Michelle Obama was harshly criticized for her infamous comment that her husband's election marked the first time that she was "really proud" of her country. At the time, Michelle Obama was widely seen as detrimental to the Obama campaign. Now the beaming, composed first lady, often clad in pastels and pearls and constantly attending to her young daughters, is hardly a controversial character. 
It seems that many of us have picked up on the conscious shaping of Michelle Obama as the next most popular first lady and "first mother." How does her embrace of the role compare to first ladies of the past? Who is most responsible for this change in portrayal? And how will we continue to view her as her husband's term advances?


Anonymous said...

It’s nice to see that Mrs. Obama is getting relatively high approval ratings. I think women connect with her because she is strong, and won’t simply stand by her husband demurely, as I get the feeling some past first ladies have done. She appears to be an approachable and extremely knowledgeable woman, and she has a lot of experience to offer. She seems to symbolize a sort of empowerment, as did Hillary Clinton (who also received higher than normal approval ratings, as mentioned in your post), and I think that’s a large part of the reason why she is receiving a lot of support.

mjwong89 said...

I do not think Michelle Obama was ever a liability for the Obama campaign. While many opponents criticized her for proud comment, I think many saw it as playing politics-criticizing an opponent or opponent's family for anything, even an innocent remark. Michelle Obama is the new HRC; her youth and husband's fame contribute to her popularity. That is why I believe she is so popular.

elmacdon said...

It does not surprise me that Michelle Obama is receiving many favorable rating and from women, too. Yes, her image as a "mother" has definitely stood out, but who is to say that this is negative? The importance of motherhood still persists in America today, which is why I think it is completely acceptable for Michelle to be seen as a successful First Lady. Even if she is considered successful just because of her capability to fuse both her roles (as mother and First Lady), that is still such a feat. I think that she has chosen to take a somewhat different role as First Lady than past First Ladies have taken, but this is not necessarily bad. She is just incorporating the family image in the White House more as well as motherhood into the role of the First Lady more.