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Michelle Obama moves from Mom-in-Chief to White House MVP

President Barack Obama’s appearance at North Carolina A&T showed the first lady’s influence

Michelle Obama is the real MVP of the Obama administration.

Last week, Michelle Obama made headlines as she wowed the country with a speech rebuking Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Two days before, President Barack Obama was taking questions during a town hall meeting with The Undefeated at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina. And while the first lady was in Washington, D.C., at the time, her presence loomed large.

She might have started as a reluctant political spouse, but she’s evolved into one of most formidable voices of the Obama administration, all while quietly subverting the strictures of an unofficial office that draws no salary.

Michelle Obama doesn’t just complement her husband’s messaging — she influences it for the better.

If the president has a consistent weak spot with black folks, his most loyal group of supporters, it’s his proclivity for condescension — or as Ta-Nehisi Coates labeled it, “targeted scorn.” The president has a reputation for addressing black audiences in language thick with paternalism, to the point that he inspires a complicated array of feelings whenever he’s going to address a historically black college or university, given his 2013 commencement speech at Morehouse College. It’s a mix of pride and anticipation, followed by a sense of dread.

In recent years, President Obama seems to have somewhat tempered this habit, and his 2016 address to graduates of Howard University was better received. Whenever his audience is predominantly black, there’s a question of which Obama you’re going to get: The one who told black parents in 2008 to stop feeding their children “cold Popeyes” for breakfast, and lectured heavily on absentee black fathers, or Howard Obama?

North Carolina A&T found out when the president took a question from Khadejah Stegall, a 21-year-old senior from Laurel Hill, North Carolina. Stegall explained that she had a 1-year-old daughter and that she was married to a Ph.D. student. “As the president of the United States, a husband and a father, what is one trait you believe one must possess in order to overcome challenges while also balancing a family?” Stegall asked.

President Obama took his time delivering his answer. “I think the trick — and this is more directed at your husband — he should just do what you tell him to do, which has worked very well in my house,” he said with a smile. “The truth is that balancing professional achievement and family is something that Michelle and I have had to wrestle with. She’s talked about it at length. I have, too. I think that it’s particularly burdensome on the mom. That’s why my message is probably more for your husband than for you, which is you have to be there, and present, and at home.

Democratic supporters listen as first lady Michelle Obama speaks during a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, in Phoenix.

Democratic supporters listen as first lady Michelle Obama speaks during a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, in Phoenix.

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

“My favorite sound bite from Michelle about this is, I remember right after Malia was born, very early on, a friend of mine called to see if I wanted to play basketball. I said, ‘I can’t. I’ve got to babysit Malia.’ I hung up the phone, and she turned to me and she said, ‘You know what? If it’s your own child, it’s not babysitting.’ That was a good mindset. I think that’s what a lot of men and dads, even ones who love their kids and are involved, I think there’s this sense of, ‘If I’m just taking them out for ice cream, and hanging out at the park or the zoo, that I’m doing my job,’ as opposed to all the nasty stuff that’s involved in raising children. There’s no doubt that Michelle carried a greater burden than I did, particularly because the nature of my work required a lot of travel. I would say to the soon-to-be dads here, just understanding the level of responsibility and commitment that’s required, and the things that you have to cut out, because a lot of moms are already cutting those things out, and if you’re going to have a real partnership, you have to give, and not just take.”

[The messaging of Michelle Obama in Kadir Nelson’s A Day at the Beach]

Aha. It wasn’t Popeyes Obama or Howard Obama. It was, mercifully, Obama with Michelle in his ear.

Popeyes Obama used to talk to black audiences about fatherhood by telling them not to “just sit in the house watching SportsCenter” and not to “get carried away with that eighth-grade graduation” because “you’re supposed to graduate from eighth grade.”

In Greensboro, President Obama couched his rhetoric in feminism and egalitarianism with a dose of self-deprecation thrown in for good measure rather than the tone of finger-wagging black scold.

The message was essentially the same: Be present, show initiative, be a supportive partner. The packaging, as President Obama acknowledged, came from his wife, who in June, delivered the same line at the White House’s United State of Women conference: “You don’t babysit your own kids!”

It wasn’t that long ago that Michelle Obama’s decision to take up the mantle of Mom-in-Chief was controversial, and to some feminists, disappointing. In Politico magazine, Michelle Cottle declared her a “feminist nightmare.” Michelle Obama, after all, is only the second first lady, after Hillary Clinton, to hold a law degree. She’s the third, after Clinton and Laura Bush, to hold a graduate degree, period. She had been a high-powered executive in Chicago, and now she was just going to be … Mom?

This turned out to be a gross underestimation of Michelle Obama, because if nothing else, she has wielded the soft power of Mom-in-Chief like a patriarchy-dismantling rapier.

“Mom” might just have been the perfect model for Michelle Obama because it was so nonthreatening.

According to George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley, we tend to base our feelings about government and its role on how we were raised, because for most people, our parents are the first power structure we encounter. Wrote Lakoff earlier this year:

“We tend to understand the nation metaphorically in family terms: We have founding fathers. We send our sons and daughters to war. We have homeland security. The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The Nurturant Parent family (progressive) and the Strict Father family (conservative).

What do social issues and the politics have to do with the family? We are first governed in our families, and so we grow up understanding governing institutions in terms of the governing systems of families.”

But if our 44 presidents are a series of fathers steering the country, what then do we make of first ladies? Especially this one?

Moms, and especially first ladies, aren’t considered threatening because we don’t think of them as having real power. But where some of her husband’s actions have inspired ambivalence, disappointment or resentment, Michelle Obama is seemingly immune. She’s more popular than the president and her approval ratings are consistently higher than his. (Such is the benefit of not holding, or aspiring to hold, elected office.) Even when he lets loose, singing a few bars of Al Green, or Amazing Grace, the president remains his professorial self. The first lady, on the other hand, is mom dancer, friend and role model to Beyoncé and Carpool Karaoke rock star.

It wasn’t until Clinton was sold as part of a “two for the price of one” deal that a woman presented a challenge to how we saw the first mom, and the country didn’t like it. After the Clintons failed to pass health care reform, Clinton was chastened and withdrew into the traditional role of first lady as White House hostess.

Michelle Obama’s bank of goodwill is what makes her such an effective political surrogate, so much so that she was deemed “The Closer” for her ability to persuade wavering voters to elect her husband.

The White House has become a master of exploiting Michelle Obama’s soft power, and in that sense the Obamas have a political partnership. When President Obama was in Greensboro, he was there to discuss My Brother’s Keeper, his mentorship initiative for boys of color aimed at disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. President Obama has been criticized for neglecting to include girls of color, especially when research showed that black girls were being subjected to the same punitive disciplinary forces at even higher rates than black boys. That day, the White House press office was on offense, pelting reporters’ inboxes with emails about Let Girls Learn (the first lady’s initiative advocating for the education of girls around the world, which was launched in 2015), and her remarks commemorating the International Day of the Girl.

First lady Michelle Obama, accompanied by actress Yara Shahidi, right and Glamour magazine Editor in Chief Cindi Leive, participates in Glamour's “A Brighter Future: A Global Conversation on Girls' Education,” in celebration of International Day of the Girl and Let Girls Learn, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, at the Newseum in Washington.

First lady Michelle Obama, accompanied by actress Yara Shahidi, right and Glamour magazine Editor in Chief Cindi Leive, participates in Glamour’s “A Brighter Future: A Global Conversation on Girls’ Education,” in celebration of International Day of the Girl and Let Girls Learn, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, at the Newseum in Washington.

AP Photo/Molly Riley

She has also used the first lady’s role of hostess and socialite to open the White House to everyone, not just foreign dignitaries, but Girl Scouts and children around the country, using PBS’ In Performance at the White House series as an opportunity to connect children with artists performing at the White House through afternoon workshops.

During a panel at the Television Critics Association press tour this summer, Hamilton alumnus Daveed Diggs described the experience when the company visited the White House: “We met the kids. We split off into different groups and each took a different room in the White House, and worked with kids developing a performance piece for them to then come back to the full group and perform in the White House,” Diggs said. “The kids came back and did it. It was magical. They gave us all sorts of assets for us to run around and make silly videos with cameras for our performances. … The humanity that was shown to us, it kind of broke my brain a little bit.”

It’s only been in the last years of the Obama administration that Michelle Obama has been transformed into a full-throated, unambiguous advocate for feminism. That was, in part, because she had to spend so much time establishing herself as nonthreatening, but also because she was responsible for the bulk of parenting Malia and Sasha. Now that Malia is taking a gap year between graduating from Sidwell Friends School and attending Harvard University, and Sasha is in high school, we’re witnessing the sharpness and the power of a woman who’s able to dedicate more of her time and energy to getting Clinton elected and pursuing her own initiatives.

One result of all that work was apparent last week when she delivered the most intimate and affecting speech of her tenure during a rally for Clinton in New Hampshire. It reverberated through the press even more than any of her Democratic National Convention speeches. If Michelle Obama spent the past eight years as relatable and authentic, it paid off when she found herself beseeching the country to protect her and every woman from a man accused of sexual assault.

“I have to tell you that I listen to all of this and I feel it so personally, and I’m sure that many of you do, too, particularly the women,” Michelle Obama said. “The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman.

“It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts. It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.”

(For a close read of Michelle Obama’s speech, this thread from Virginia Commonwealth University sociology professor Tressie McMillan-Cottom is worth a peek.)

Michelle Obama is an avatar for the shift in messaging of the Democratic Party itself. Pundits on both sides of the aisle noted that this year’s Democratic National Convention was full of the patriotic pageantry typically associated with Republicans, and that speakers appropriated the rhetoric of family values and used it to sell progressivism. This is something Michelle Obama has been doing for years because she kind of had to, given the way she was caricatured during the 2008 campaign and the early Obama years as a sleeveless Black Power militant. She cloaked herself in the traditional gender role of the first lady and is now considered the most effective voice advocating for Clinton as president because of it.

Addressing the Congressional Black Caucus in September, President Obama implored his audience to protect his legacy. “There’s no such thing as a vote that doesn’t matter,” the president said, once again settling into his role as black scold. “It all matters. And after we have achieved historic turnout in 2008 and 2012, especially in the African-American community, I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy, if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election.”

But in New Hampshire, Michelle Obama asked us to protect women just like her. And we listened and responded because, if nothing else, for the past eight years, she has shown us she’s just like us, or rather, the best version of us that we’d like to think we could be.

This week, The New York TimesT magazine published a series of thank you letters to Michelle Obama, part of an issue dedicated to the first lady already in the works. But after her New Hampshire speech, it was Dave Pell, the editor of the NextDraft newsletter, a witty packaging of the day’s news from all over the internet, who captured what the moment, and the first lady, have come to represent. “Now, when I say, ‘Thanks, Obama,’ ” he wrote, “I mean Michelle.”

Mom-in-Chief. The real MVP.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.