Michelle Obama wants a bigger role in her husband’s administration, according to The Washington Post. Unlike Laura Bush, who focused on a few peripheral issues, Obama wants a seat at the table when key policies are made.
Obama’s new chief of staff, Susan Sher, is part of the crucial 8:15 a.m. White House staff meeting. The first lady’s team of more than 20 has been told to think “strategically” about how to make her a player on policies she cares about.
This could be a very bad idea.
Washington insiders haven’t seen a first lady this ambitious since Hillary Clinton, without question the most powerful holder of that unofficial office.
Clinton put herself in charge of her husband’s plans to radically reform health care, and the nation is still paying the price for her mistakes.
While the failure of the Clinton administration’s health care agenda had many causes, she made some missteps that a more experienced Washington policymaker would not have made. And because she was the spouse of the president, it was very tough for anyone to tell her husband that things were going badly.
Clinton was a Yale-educated lawyer and, without a doubt, a brilliant woman (and she has learned a lot since then). And much the same could be said about the double-Ivy League-degreed Obama.
But if you throw a pebble up in the air at rush hour in Metro Center, you would very likely hit someone with an Ivy League degree. Succeeding at policy development and advocacy at the highest levels of government takes a lot more than that.
Marrying a top policymaker doesn’t magically grant you the rare skills necessary for your spouse’s profession, any more than marrying Serena Williams would enable you to win Wimbledon.
I know few music fans who believe Yoko and Linda improved the music of John and Paul with their contributions.
Yet even if Obama is a natural and immediately grasps how Washington works, there is something troubling about the whole concept of a presidential spouse with a multimillion-dollar staff.
Being the spouse of the president didn’t always get you a seat at the policy table. It wasn’t until the Carter years that first ladies got taxpayer-financed staffing. It has become so embedded in our system that it seems almost natural today. But constitutionally, the first spouse has no more right to wield power than does the spouse of the chief justice.
Imagine the uproar if Chief Justice John Roberts announced that his wife, Jane, would take the lead role on any abortion questions that came before the court and would participate in deliberations with the other justices. She is, after all, a very bright attorney with an Ivy League degree who has impassioned views about abortion.
Or if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) decided that her husband, Paul, would write our health care legislation.
The only reason that these comparisons seem farcical is that the media have granted the family of the president an oversize role in American public life in the past 80 years.
There is no doubt that first ladies have done great good on issues such as literacy and freedom in Myanmar.
Yet it is, at its core, anti-republican and nepotistic for a citizen to gain access to formal power via blood or marriage.
Over time, we have adopted a “serial monarchy” in which the family — and particularly the spouse — of the president has the potential for enormous influence. Ironically, in European democracies, where monarchies were once powerful, spouses of leaders are not given formal power over policies.
One prospect for this changing is a first spouse abdicating the role. In 2004, Howard Dean’s wife had already suggested that if he were elected president, she would go on working as a physician, as she had when Dean was governor of Vermont.
The key turning point could come with the election of a woman to the presidency. The newness of a “first gentleman” could cause us to re-examine this odd accretion of power via marriage.
For now, the White House knows that Obama is an extraordinarily popular voice for the president’s policies. It would be foolish not to deploy her, now and on the campaign trail in 2012. We can only hope that she avoids a HillaryCare fiasco with her policy input.
Personally, I think Obama is going to be a good “queen” for America during the next four years. But the problem with monarchical power is that you never know what you are going to get next.
Jeremy D. Mayer is author of “American Media Politics in Transition” (McGraw Hill, 2007) and director of George Mason University’s master’s program in public policy.