Is Michelle Obama’s Scaling Back at Work for Her Husband’s Campaign Front-Page News?
News of Michelle Obama’s decision to scale back her duties as VP of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals and hit the presidential campaign trail with her husband, Barack, has put the spotlight back on the professional and personal choices career women must often make.
The press coverage of Mrs. Obama also reveals the newfound role political spouses play in modern-day elections. Two of the presidential contenders wives — Elizabeth Edwards and Ann Romney — are respectively battling cancer and multiple sclerosis, and another spouse — Bill Clinton — is a former president.
“I think she’s constantly surprised at what people chose to make news,” Katie McCormick Lelyveld, communications director for Michelle Obama, told BlackAmericaWeb.com. Lelyveld said a recent front-page Washington Post story, which first announced Obama’s decision, had initially misreported Mrs. Obama’s intention to leave her job.
“As of May 1st, she reduced her hours to 20 percent and, as we all know in the age of Blackberries, is very hard to quantify exactly how much she is working,” explained Lelyveld. “She still goes to meetings, manages her administrative responsibilities and stays on top of some of the projects that she’s been working on because her career has always been very important to her. Completely leaving it at this point is not something that she’s doing.”
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AP VideoA lot of attention is being paid as Michelle Obama publicly makes a transition from her status as a private citizen with a white-collar job to possibly become America’s first black First Lady. Last year, Essence magazine listed her among “25 of the World’s Most Inspiring Women” while Ebony anointed the Obamas one of “America’s 10 Hottest couples.”While Obama reportedly makes doubly her husband’s income, she is still the primary caretaker of the couple’s two young daughters. Like her husband, Obama attended Harvard Law School, and according to insiders, she is crucial to her husband’s success. As a Chicago native, Mrs. Obama as been credited with introducing her husband to mainstream America. He is now the junior senator from Illinois.
Last week, Mrs. Obama made her first visit to New Hampshire, one of about a dozen solo campaign stops she has made. Since Barack Obama’s formal announcement in February, she has made 16 joint appearances with him.
“Barack has given people that hope, but he’s going to get tired. This is a long campaign,” Michelle Obama told Democrats gathered for a house party in Windham, New Hampshire. “I joke he’s not going to be able to bring people to tears with every speech that he makes. He’s going to make stumbles.”
She told those gathered of the sacrifices her parents made to put put her and her brother through Princeton University on a working class salary. She said that dream of supporting a family and putting children through college seems to be getting further away, even with loans.
Obama says she believes as president, her husband could change things for the better, and that if she didn’t believe that, she’d tell him to do something else.
Obama told the Washington Post that she grappled with her decision to work after the birth of her daughters.
“Every other month [since] I’ve had children I’ve struggled with the notion of ‘Am I being a good parent? Can I stay home? Should I stay home? How do I balance it all?'” she said. “I have gone back and forth every year about whether I should work.”
Obama does not fit into the neat definition of either stay-at-home or working mom. While she is a vivid example of a full-time executive mother who is supportive of her spouse, her decision to scale back in her job duties is ultimately very personal.
“I believe you should let women decide what they’re going to do, as long as they have all the options, they should do what they want,” Martha Leslie Allen, Web editor for Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press, told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “Part of the problem that pushes women out of most jobs is it is hard to have all the responsibilities of a career with children when there isn’t good child care, and it isn’t equally divided. And those responsibilities fall onto women.”
Lelyveld speculates the reason Obama’s decision is front-page news is “perhaps it’s because she’s a woman whose maintained her own career. I don’t know why that’s news, but people think it is.”
The more than 280 comments in the Post‘s “On Balance” blog late Monday reflected a variety of viewpoints on both Mrs. Obama’s decision and the media’s coverage of it.
“The day I read about the aspiring first husband quitting his job to support his aspiring president wife will be a great day,” opined a poster named Meesh. “I think the media report on this type of stuff because our country is very partisan, and news like this is potential fodder for either side. The media thrive on controversy. Issues like these evoke strong emotions, and people want to read about it.”
“I think it’s clear that in America, we’ve come to expect the two parent household, and women are clearly in the workforce,” according to Kari, who offered that “when you note that women’s work is still not valued as highly as men’s work in real dollars, and then take into account the backlash against strong working political figures like Hillary Clinton and the backlash against the strength the 41st First Lady Bush endured, you could see why Mrs. Obama made her decision … Being smart and funny and articulate is wonderful, if you’re a smart, funny, and articulate woman working to further her husband and family. Following your own ambitions comes at a political price.”
Another comment, from Common Sense, read, “Personally, I’d like Michelle Obama to be First Lady in 2008, but politics is pressure, even for political families. It’s no surprise that she has left her job. I’m certain she’ll be a benefit to her husband in the campaign. Even so, she will have a high profile, and I doubt this will damage her career. By the way, I don’t equate being outspoken with being ‘strong.’ A leader doesn’t simply give orders; a leader is defined by who will follow based on personality, character and principles. Hillary Clinton is not ‘strong’ by that measure. Hillary is a divider, not a uniter. I’m sick and tired of dividers. That’s reason enough to support Obama. I couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton at gunpoint.”
Associated Press contributed to this story.