Michelle Obama occupies a unique position in American history as the country’s first minority First Lady. As a general rule, First Ladies are not all that political and until recent generations have filled a role not much more substantive than “hostess-in-chief.” There have been a few notable exceptions (Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton and Abigail Adams immediately come to mind), but usually the First Lady maintains a pleasantly low profile and confines her policy contributions to private moments with her husband. As a result, criticism of the First Lady is usually of a mildly partisan, somewhat petty nature, but seldom vicious.
This, however, is not the case with Mrs. Obama, who is frequently on the receiving end of virulent attacks from people who hate her personally, and not just because of her husband’s policies. This hatred is puzzling since the First Lady has done little to invite such vitriol. She is busy, well-groomed, fit and attractive; looks after her family; speaks at non-partisan events and has adopted childhood obesity as her signature issue…exactly the kind of innocuous child-friendly cause that traditionally is championed by First Ladies.
And yet we see a very negative reaction to Michelle Obama from far-right conservatives. If you read the comments at these conservative blog sites, you see a level of personal animosity, spite and invective that has never been directed at any other First Lady…not even Hillary Clinton, who was also deeply unpopular with the conservative base. One sign of this animosity is Tea Party icon and conservative darling Sarah Palin’s attacks on the First Lady…personal attacks, by name. Palin has frequently criticized Mrs. Obama’s child health initiatives. The latest attack appears in an episode of her reality TV series in which she is searching for the ingredients for smores and tells the camera, “This is in honor of Michelle Obama, who doesn’t want us to have dessert.”
Of course, this line of attack is well received by her base, and Palin obviously feels she is safe in launching broadsides at the First Lady, but it is a strategy that is not without risk. This article by a right-wing commentator at the Kansas City Star expresses doubt from the right about the wisdom of attacking Michelle Obama personally. Palin’s fading poll numbers are perhaps another sign that the public is not wholly prepared to embrace any politician, however high-profile and popular, who mocks the First Lady.
Chris Matthews tiptoed bravely into the murky waters of this issue last week on Hardball. He discussed the profile and behavior of Michelle Obama: “She’s not doing anything controversial. She’s just doing her thing, speaking at kids’ events, helping military families, trying to do a good job of raising her daughters, working on childhood obesity. She’s not hurting anybody that I can see. There’s no particular reason to dislike her, yet lots of people really hate her. I wonder why?”
Matthews pauses for a moment to let this sink in and then concludes, “Why do they hate the First Lady so much?” he asks. “Is it racism? I think it has to be.”
When I read the kind of threads like these at Free Republic about Michelle Obama, I think I have to agree.
- Palin Attacks Michelle Obama For Wanting Kids To Eat Healthy (alan.com)
- Sarah Palin slightly disses First Lady Michelle Obama (hollywoodnews.com)
- A Dessert Affair: Reasons Why Sarah Palin is Picking on Michelle Obama (socyberty.com)
- Sarah Palin under increasing fire over ‘food fight’ with Michelle Obama (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
- Republican Mike Huckabee Defends Michelle Obama in Obesity Fight (theroot.com)
- Combating obesity need not be partisan (washingtonmonthly.com)
- Michelle Obama Finds Some Big Republican Names Defending Anti-Obesity Campaign From Sarah Palin (Huffington Post)