JMU Professor Sees Activist Role for Michelle Obama


In the 220-year history of American first ladies, 40 women have filled the roles of public figure, social hostess, presidential helpmate, political adviser, White House renovator-preservationist, campaigner, social activist and advocate and formal actor in the policy process. As Michelle Obama enters the Office of the First Lady, she begins the process of making her mark on the constantly evolving office. 

James Madison University political science Professor Anthony J. Eksterowicz is a particularly keen observer among the people interested in Obama's role as first lady. As co-editor of "The Presidential Companion: Readings on the First Ladies," he and Robert P. Watson have observed " within the parameters established by precedent and public opinion, first ladies have had a range of options available to them as they contemplated the nature of their approaches to the office. In developing these approaches first ladies have also taken their cues from public opinion, the preferences of the presidents, historical precedent, the prevailing views on the status of women in society, and, of course, their own inclinations and abilities." 

Michelle Obama, a Princeton University and Harvard Law School alumna, whose career has included tenure as a corporate lawyer, a Chicago public official and an administrator at the University of Chicago and its medical center, brings a unique array of abilities and experience to the office. 

Eksterowicz is anxious to learn where Obama will locate her office within the White House. The physical location is important, he said, "Because geographical proximity to the Oval Office is one indicator of how active the first lady's going to be. It's not the only indicator, but it's one of the indicators." 

"The other thing that's very predictive about activism is the relationship between the first lady and the president," Eksterowicz said. "And by all indications this is a very strong relationship, it's very family oriented and they take each other's advice very seriously. So I would say job, education, relationship with the president and the fact that this president is going to preside over an activist presidency is going to push her in that direction." 

Eksterowicz, who has taught a seminar-style course on first ladies at JMU, believes Obama will expand her stated goals of focusing on issues of concern to military and working families as she assumes her duties as first lady. 

Regardless of the particular issues or projects she decides to champion, Obama, like all first ladies, will have to face the daunting prospect of managing what Eksterowicz calls "the public-private divide" or "managing your family and maintaining a public face." 

"It's very, very difficult for first ladies to do that," he said. "They really face a lot of contradictions. They're not elected, they're not paid for the job that they do, yet they have an increasingly professional staff that becomes increasingly integrated with the White House, which leads you toward that activism, even if you don't want it. 

"The problem of managing this impetus for public service with managing your family, doing the kind of social 'hostessing' things that are necessary for the first lady, it's very, very difficult to find a neat balance," Eksterowicz said. "I suspect what's going to happen to Mrs. Obama is what happened to Mrs. Clinton. If she stumbles, she's going to stumble in trying to manage those two very separate things."

Published: Friday, January 16, 2009

Last Updated: Monday, February 26, 2018

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