In his victory speech on Wednesday, President Obama said he “wouldn’t be the man I am today without the woman who agreed to marry me 20 years ago,” acknowledging that America had fallen “in love with you too as our nation’s first lady.”
Obama was talking about Michelle Obama, his wife since October 1992. Michelle has consistently posted higher favourability ratings than her husband during the campaign, with 66 per cent of Americans viewing her favorably on election night while the President’s approval ratings were at 52 per cent.
America’s first ladies, wives to the world’s most powerful man, do not have any constitutionally defined role. Apart from acting as White House hostesses, their legacy and contribution usually rests on their characters and passions. Hillary Clinton was the steely liberal ideologue who tried to get universal health care passed (and failed) in Bill Clinton’s first term. In his second term she was diplomacy personified, both as her husband’s administration’s ambassador and the graceful, non-vindictive spouse dragged into her husband’s immorality. Laura Bush stayed in the background most of the time.
Yet, the system is rigged against the wives; becoming American president requires an exceptional set of characteristics, not the least of which is charm and magnetism. Barack Obama has both in spade-fulls. However, his wife has always matched him, and at the critical times these qualities failed to shine through, when he was spent with the toil of governing, her charisma and shine complemented his.
In his first campaign, Michelle quickly became a style icon after the public fell in love with her understated and affordable style. She committed herself to fighting childhood obesity and advocating for military families in Obama’s first term, perfectly adapting to the title Mom-in-Chief. However, the most powerful display of her
power as Presidential spouse came at the Democratic National Convention where she delivered a moving speech highlighting her humble upbringing, and reaffirmed her husband’s sense of duty and dedication, “…for Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”
And, to underscore her value to the campaign, the top five most liked posts on Obama’s Facebook page had nothing to do with politics, but were scenes of his family.
Even then, she has not been spared the vicious criticism Republicans have directed at her husband, which were futile, at best. A charming and intelligent reassurance in an overburdened administration, it is difficult not to fall in love with her.
The most hated and attacked campaign officer in Barack Obama’s re-election campaign was not one of the older and long-serving males from the 2008 campaign, but Stephanie Cutter, who joined the team in September 2011 as deputy campaign manager in charge of policy, research and communication. Republican attack dogs dismissed her as “some hack political adviser from Chicago,” resorting to sexism in labeling her as “Obama’s chief campaign babe,” and, inevitably, writing her off as just a pretty face in the campaign.
Yes, she was a pretty face, a very pretty one at that. Yet, such attacks were surely not inspired by her beauty: Cutter was the most public and incisive Obama campaign operative, something which put her in the opposition’s bad books.
According to the New York Times, she “emerged as Mr Obama’s one-woman attack squad” from “a campaign that, until recently, had been largely dominated by middle-aged white men.” Cutter was at her best when responding to flawed policies put forward by the Romney campaign: in videos posted on YouTube by the Obama campaign, she would dissect arguments she did not agree with, point-by-point. The role was essentially that of the campaigns chief messenger, one who never shied away from any argument and covered ground the candidate had not covered.
It is not like she was fazed by the attacks. People who had worked with her portrayed her as very competitive and passionate. She was eager to jump into battles, most times leading the campaign into attack lines they had not yet spotted.
Stephanie Cutter is an old Democratic hand, having worked for Bill Clinton and two democratic senators. In 2004, she was part of the failed presidential campaign of John Kerry as communication’s chief. She became Michelle Obama’s Chief of Staff in 2008, before serving in President Obama’s administration, from where she joined his campaign.
An American’s President’s agenda is usually driven by his Chief of Staff, who supervises staff in the White House, manages the President’s schedule, decides who he will meet and, crucially, often keeps the tabs on implementation of the president’s agenda. Yet, even though Obama has been through four Chiefs of Staff, they have had to share that role with Valerie Jarrett. If anything, they played second fiddle to her.
Apart from Michelle Obama, no one enjoys closer access than Jarrett, who serves as White House Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Liaison. She met the President twenty years ago when she offered his wife a job in the Chicago Mayor’s office in which she worked.
Michelle took the job, and Jarrett became closer to the family (she is Michelle’s best friend), taking them under her wing and helping them navigate the city’s political landscape. When Obama became President in 2008, he asked her to come along to the White House. Administration insiders say her bond with the President is a cross between that of older sister – she’s five years his senior – as well as a mother figure. Not only are they close friends, she has also acted as his moral compass during his first term in office, reminding him of his promises when need arises.
Her usefulness to the President trumps her perceived shortcomings. During the re-election campaign, she worked as tirelessly as any official. She held a number of fundraisers and TV interviews. Stephanie Cutter said she was one of Obama’s “sought-after surrogates,” involved in “raising money, launching Women for Obama, visiting college campuses, traveling the country, rallying our supporters.”
For someone who would “cut your throat and your children’s throat to protect the president,” according to a White House Official, there is no better payback for such loyalty than a second term.
How American women saw Obama into office
It is safe to say that President Obama would not have won a second term in office had American women not voted for him. Obama won by carrying three constituencies: the youth, nonwhites and women, who he won by a 12 per cent margin over Mitt Romney.
Women’s support helped the President overcome his lukewarm support among White men, who were Mitt Romney’s most reliant bloc and who he won by 25 percentage points. But since female voters exceeded male voters by about seven per cent, were more likely to vote, and have for the last five presidential elections in America voted for the liberal candidates, Obama was able to neutralise that gap which, in addition to his support among nonwhites and young people, propelled him to his second term.
The women like him because of his stance on social issues. While Republican candidates, as the more religiously conservative block, maintained a hardline stance on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, Obama’s administration has been liberal on those fronts. Electing Obama, according to Feminist groups, was voting for a “feminist future,” according to women’s groups in the United States.
“We must not let Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan take us back to a time before health care reform, before legalised abortion and family planning funding, before unions and the social safety net,” a message from the National Organization for Women (NOW) to voters said.
Obama also put equal pay and women’s healthcare at the forefront, while Mitt Romney was blamed for failing to support Obama-backed laws that would make it easier for women to sue over pay discrimination.
And, we asked you...
Which women stood out in their role in the American presidential campaigns? Do the women who are not running for any political posts, contribute to such political processes at all anyway?
Karoro Okurut - Information Minister
All the women have played a vital role in these campaigns, Michelle Obama and Ann Romney alike. Women are such a big deal in any political race and should not be taken for granted. Even here in Uganda, politicians always front their spouses as the supporting edge therefore they are a necessary evil for any victory in a political race.
Amelia Kyambadde - Minster Of Trade and Cooperatives
The few occasions I watched the campaigns, I found Michelle very intriguing, charismatic, vocal and outspoken. She painted her husband as the best President US has had in history, something that won him support. I think women are such a vital element in one’s life, whether political or business. Men need us as much as we need them to attain success in all our struggles.
Wafula Oguttu - Buukholi Central MP
Michelle’s convention speech moved souls, especially the less privileged. It became a basis for judgment and with it, she attracted crowds for her husband. Just like in the US, many people would want to give a vote to someone who they believe is a good manager of their family. A spouse is key in proving this to the public and therefore should not be a missing figure during campaigns or in a husband’s political journey.
Nobert Mao - Democratic Party President
I listened to Michelle’s entire speech at the Convention. She is such a big asset to Obama. She is a captivating speaker and a practical lady. She has initiated several people projects to curb the growing disease of obesity in USA. Her young physique and beauty appeals to the youth too, to her husband’s advantage. She is indeed very beautiful and I believe this is an additional advantage to her husband. And Ann Romney too comes out as a woman who has been a pillar of victory for she raised a family well and looked after the husband. She as well played a big role in the success of these campaigns, although Michelle was exceptional.
Francis Mwijukye - FDC Youth League Head
Oprah Winfrey did great work for Obama campaigning thoroughly during her reality shows. Even though she is not related to him, she believes in him and has done a great deal in ensuring that Obama keeps in the presidency seat until date. Her belief in him got her shading a tear for him when he won the first elections. His wife Michelle Obama was also a key element in Obama’s victory. Obama would have probably lost but the wife ensured that she lures supporters through her moving public speeches.
Women are very important; they are emotional so they create that emotional attachment with potential supporters.
Evelyn Anito - Youth MP Northern Uganda and Spokesperson NRM
Having a partner besides you during any political race lessens chances of failing. Michelle was Obama’s right hand woman throughout. She stood by him through the worst of moments. In fact, Obama confessed that he had never loved Michelle like he does now. This is probably because he too feels she has loved him most during these hard times. Romney’s wife too tried. Even though the husband did not win, he pulled off a very successful campaign, something he attributed to, among others, his wife and his children’s spouses, something that shows how important women are in politics.