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.