Reflecting on Michelle Obama’s legacy, role in the White House

By Tangi Quemener ,AFP

WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama turns 50 on Friday as one of America’s most respected women. But the popular first lady has yet to break free of the confines of one of the toughest jobs in politics. The former Michelle Robinson did not take to politics quickly in the shadow of her high-wattage husband and was even a liability early on in his 2008 campaign. But she has evolved into a polished performer and — at key moments in the president’s re-election bid — breathed new life into his political persona when he seemed weary and uninspired. “She started very slowly in office, and (has) kind of built into the role. With every passing year she seems more comfortable,” said Robert Watson, a professor of American studies at Lynn University in Florida. Obama enhanced her initial role as “Mom in Chief” to become the figurehead of a number of important issues, including veterans’ benefits. While there are no official duties or a role under the Constitution, the job of first lady is a symbolic, politically sensitive one in which it is easier to stumble than soar. Obama, married for 21 years and with two daughters, Malia, 15 and Sasha, 12, is a history maker in her own right as the first African American first lady. “The First Lady is unpaid, unelected and unappointed; therefore, it’s not even a job per se,” said Watson, author of several books on first ladies. “It’s difficult because there are no statutory parameters which say what the first lady can and cannot do.

“That’s good and bad. It’s good because she can try to find her way, but everything she does, she’s open to criticism one way or another.” The job has become even more complicated in the modern age, and seems ill-suited for modern professional women and working mothers who may struggle to settle into a subordinate role to an all-powerful husband. Hillary Clinton, for example, found herself in political crossfire when she tried to reinvent the role and take on a policy platform in the 1990s. Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said every woman that comes to the role of first lady is challenged by fitting it to their own personality. “There are certain assumptions with the role, first of all being an asset, not a liability,” Mandel said. The first lady is simultaneously a hostess for state occasions and the glue in the wholesome family image modern presidents seek to project.