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Michelle Obama Plays Nice; I Hope She Doesn't Mean It

I didn't catch Michelle Obama's turn as guest-host on ABC's "The View" yesterday, but I gather from the reviews she was a big hit. She deftly answered questions about her husband's policy positions, like most-favored breakfast food. (Bacon.) She revealed her own feelings on other raging debates, like whether to wear pantyhose. (A polite but firm no: "I'm 5'11'' so I'm tall, nothing fits...Put 'em on, rip ''s inconvenient.") And, most important, she met and exceeded expectations from the fashion pundits. (She wore a black-and-white sleveless dress from what is, according to Slate, "a middlebrow outlet for middle-aged ladies, a line exactly as fancy as the Gap.") 

All of this was part of the Obama campaign's carefully orchestrated effort to re-introduce Michelle, who's become a source of controversy for things she has said (famously, declaring that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country") and things she has not said (i.e., supposedly using the term "whitey" in a speech). And, on "The View," Michelle apparently did exactly what she needed to do. She side-stepped controversies, like whether her husband should pick Hillary Clinton as a running mate: "the one thing that a nominee earns is a right to pick the vice president that they think will best reflect their vision for the country. And I'm just glad I will have nothing to do with it." Michelle even praised Laura Bush, citing her as a role model for the First Lady. "That's what I like about Laura Bush, her calm, rational approach to these issues. I am taking some cues. There's a reason why people like her, because she doesn't sort of fuel the fire."

You can count me as skeptical that Michelle Obama really means it. Reading between the lines of various profiles, it's apparent that she has some strong opinions--and no small amount of influence on her husband. And as a Princeton- and Harvard-trained lawyer with experience in one of Washington's largest and most influential firms, it's a good bet she's pretty smart, too. It seems unthinkable to me that, as First Lady, she'd fade into the background. She wouldn't be leading a task force on universal health care, but, just as surely, she wouldn't keep her thoughts to herself--at least within the White House--on major decisions about policy and management.  

And, as far as I'm concerned, that's great. Barack Obama's track record as a campaigner and office-holder reflects his leadership style and values--and that includes, I would imagine, having used his wife as a sounding board and trusted counsel. It's a track good record--after all, that's why he's the nominee and, depending on whose predictions you believe, a narrow favorite to win the eleciton in November. Why should things change afterwards?

Of course, not everybody might agree. Most of the commentary on (and controversy over) Michelle Obama has focussed on her race and how, if at all, she has interfered with his message of racial reconciliation. But I'm equally struck by the message about gender she sends and how that might play out on generational lines.

From afar, the contours of the Obama marriage look a lot like the contours of my marriage and that of many peers. Both Barack and Michelle have jobs, so they share responsibility for raising the kids. (Or at least that's how things were before the campaign, which I'm sure has changed things.) It's also very clear they treat each other as full intellectual equals. Not only has she generally made more money than he has. She's also, according to Barack, the smarter half of the couple. (That's another common element with my marriage.)

There's a lot of diversity in the gender roles you find in my generation. I have lots of friends in more traditional marriages, where the wife stays home to raise children. (And, just to be crystal clear, a woman who stays home to raise kids can certainly be an equal, and not just intellectually.) Still, I'm guessing that young people recognize the marraige roles that the Obamas have decided to adopt as pretty normal, at least relative to older voters, many of whom might see such arrangements as foreign or, in some cases, even a little threatening. It wouldn't surprise me if this is one reason older voters haven't embraced Obama as enthusiastically as younger voters. 

If so, the campaign to soften Michelle's image makes more sense. And while I wish Michelle didn't have to pretend to be something she's not--assuming I'm actually right about all of this--I'm comforted by the fact that an Obama First Family, should it come to pass, would probably accelerate the changes in conceptions about gender that are already taking place.

--Jonathan Cohn