Source Newsroom: Wake Forest University
Politics professor says Michelle Obama’s second term will look much like the first
Newswise — Martha. Dolly. Eleanor. Bess. Mamie. Nancy. Hillary. Laura. And a handful of others.
With President Obama's inauguration, Michelle Obama joined the small group of first ladies who have gotten a second chance to live in the White House.
Will Michelle Obama shift her approach to take more controversial political stands in her second term? No, says Kathy Smith, a professor of politics at Wake Forest University who studies first ladies and how they connect with the public.
With a popularity rating of 73 percent (20 points above her husband’s in a recent CNN poll), she will likely stick with what she has been doing for the past four years.
“She has been a uniter, rather than a divider,” Smith says. “She will continue to be popular because she will continue to pick up non-controversial topics.”
During her first term, Michelle Obama defined herself as a first lady for all, not just African-American women, Smith says. So, she predicts Obama will not shift her focus from the causes she has already embraced — supporting military families and encouraging healthy living — to potentially more controversial issues such as teenage pregnancy and low graduation rates.
Her continued popularity will be important for President Obama to be successful in a second term, she says.
In the past, first ladies have become less popular when they have crossed lines regarding public expectations: Rosalyn Carter with her involvement in foreign policy in Latin American and Hillary Clinton with the role she played in health policy.
Smith compares Michelle Obama to the two most recent two-term first ladies. Hillary Clinton changed her role from active political participant in the first term to a more traditional role in the second term. She changed again when she became the first first lady to run for president. In comparison, Michelle Obama will probably not alter the definition of her role much in the second term and definitely will not run for public office. Laura Bush was more consistent in her second term, but she was much more involved with international human rights violations, while Michelle has concentrated on domestic concerns.
In many respects, First Lady Obama is not that different from many of her predecessors, Smith says.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote weekly columns to communicate with the American people. Laura Bush used the weekly presidential radio address as a forum. Michelle Obama has gained millions of Twitter and Facebook followers.
Technological advances aside, Michelle Obama offers continuity to the past with her traditional interpretation of the first lady role, Smith says.
Although she is sticking to safe issues, she is also very independent and her style is her own. “The more time she spends as first lady, the more independent she becomes.”
“There have been few controversies involving Michelle Obama in a very public, fish bowl White House,” Smith says. “She is very organized, efficient and cautious – and that has served her very well.”
But, as the self-described “Mom-in-Chief,” Michelle Obama will face additional challenges in her second term she did not in her first. Her daughters will be teenagers.