Political Animal


October 24, 2012 2:19 PM The First Lady Trap

By Ed Kilgore

As someone who has for years half-seriously proposed a constitutional amendment banning public mention of the families of politicians (or alternatively, the establishment of a constitutional monarchy so that we stop expecting the First Family to act as Royals), I am highly sympathetic at the get-go to Jaclyn Friedman’s essay at TAP on the atavistic impact of the quadrennial competition for First Lady. Her argument is that abetting this (relatively recent) tradition of “vetting” the wives of presidential candidates is a factor preventing the advent of a woman as president, aside from the obvious reinforcement of gender stereotypes and patriarchal norms. And on top of everything else, the First Lady meme has an unfortunate effect on how we view their spouses:

If you like someone’s spouse or partner, don’t you like them a little better, too? First Ladies have become the hammer in presidential campaigns’ likability toolbox.
But likeability itself is completely out-of-control as a political factor. I’d much rather have a president who can manage Hillary’s now-cliché 3 a.m. phone call than one who’s fun to have a beer with. The rise of likability as a core metric is inexorably tied to the rise of American anti-intellectualism. And the rise of First Ladies as emissaries of likability brings with it a healthy dose of retro sexism as well—sexism that has consequences even for those of us who’ll never even dream of redecorating the White House.

There’s a lot here to ponder, so check it out. And remember if all else fails we can amend the Constitution.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • jjm on October 24, 2012 2:28 PM:

    I disagree. The spouse often shows the candidate from another angle. Consider that Ann Romney has interjected herself into the current campaign, actively trying to persuade women to her husband's cause. If a spouse is going to be used to campaign, they cannot be held to be off limits. Michelle Obama has been an effective campaigner for her husband.

    Unless you are of the persuasion that the little lady should be seen, not heard?

  • Hedda Peraz on October 24, 2012 2:28 PM:

    After all these years, Dolly Madison still has the lock on First Place FLOTUS.

    All that will change, when the Big Dog assumes the position. We need to start working now on the change of abbreviation.
    FG(entleman)OTUS doesn't work. How about FR(ascal) OTUS?

  • Bokonon on October 24, 2012 2:34 PM:

    This "likeability" thing is both a tribal identifier and a way that the GOP has invented of avoiding tough questions about a candidate's actual political positions. It is all about qualifying as a leader - not specific policies or positions, unless those positions are about qualifying.

    The GOP wants voters to evaluate its candidates based on character and likeability ... and the rest is supposed to be a blind trust (since once a President qualifies for office, you are supposed to trust their judgment, salute and follow their leadership). It is a neat way of avoiding divisive policy battles too.

    And the First Lady is an extension of the President's "character". Which is precisely why the GOP is so intent on politicizing the President's spouse in a way that hasn't been done before - both in negative attacks on Mrs. Obama AND in talking up the questionable wonderfulness of Mrs. Romney.

  • c u n d gulag on October 24, 2012 2:35 PM:

    I think the thought of Ann Romney, with that smug, entitled, look on her puss, as FLOTUS, is even more jarring than that rich, smug, entitled d*ck, her husband Mitt, as POTUS.

  • Richard Cambosos on October 24, 2012 2:54 PM:

    Spouses have become more and more a subject of discussion during elections (and thereafter) because of their marketability to the public which humanizes the candidate. Since campaigns have devolved into glorified smearing of the candidates, the spouse may enhance or denigrate the campaign depending on their character,
    intelligence, empathy, and of course, personality.

  • Ron Byers on October 24, 2012 3:02 PM:

    Do the names Dolly Madison, and Rachel Jackson ring a bell. The First Lady has an important feature of the American presidental landscape from the beginning.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 24, 2012 3:04 PM:

    Meh... I don't think that the "likeability" meme is inherently bad to the political process. It all depends on what the voters values are and what they're looking for in a candidate. Naturally what the TPers will like is going to differ greatly from what a Lefty Liberal is going to like.

    Personally, I don't need to like the candidate I intend to vote for. But it is extra nice when I do like my candidate. And I do personally like the Obamas.

    But no, I don't think we should be "vetting" the wives. That's when the sexism just comes flying out like a bat out of hell.

  • Enon on October 24, 2012 3:19 PM:

    ". . . the establishment of a constitutional monarchy so that we stop expecting the First Family to act as Royals . . ."

    Many years ago an Anglophile acquaintance pointed out to me a disadvantage of the American system compared to a constitutional monarchy - it's simply too much to ask one person to be both head of state and head of government.

    It's a reason we get into this mess about the persona of the FLOTUS; we are asked to vote for someone who will both symbolize the nation as head of state and run the government. It's a mistake of the founders not often mentioned.

    The British spend a lot of time wringing their hands over the consort of the monarch, but one rarely hears anything about the spouse of the prime minister. I think a lot of white people might have less anguish over a Black man in the White House if he were only the chief executive and not also the first american.

  • Barbara on October 24, 2012 3:31 PM:

    Mary Todd Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt might not be so ready to agree that this is a recent phenomenon.

    Mass media probably makes it more intense and personalized but wives have always been public figures as well.

  • ThenAgain on October 24, 2012 3:34 PM:

    Eh, this might be a reflection of something wrong with me personally, but I kinda thought John McCain's choice of a wife was a reflection of something that was fundamentally wrong with his character. Attractive, rich, evil, shallow.

  • T2 on October 24, 2012 3:43 PM:

    on some news show/comedy show (hard to tell the diff these days) there was a segment I saw, interviewing people on the street. The question was: who do you think won the debate between Ann Romney and Michelle Obama. Of course, there was no such debate. That tidbit didn't stop the interviewee's from having opinions, of course. One lady was "oh, Michelle won it going away", another said "Ann Romney won, she is so elegant" and so it went. Run-of-the-mill people on a street corner picking winners of a non-existent debate. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

    Could there ever, in history, be a couple of ladies more different than Ms. Romney and Ms. Obama campaigning for a presidency?

  • Doug on October 24, 2012 4:36 PM:

    The President's wife has ALWAYS been subject to "vetting", just ask Mrs. Washington!
    What I find objectionable is what was mentioned by Sgt Gym Bunny; placing the candidate's "likeability", however it's expressed, above the candidate's ability to actually, you know, perform the job for which he/she is campaigning!
    WJ Clinton is an excellent example. If he was someone in my hometown and, knowing what I know about his, um, proclivities, I'd most likely keep him at arms length socially. On the other hand, were he running for Mayor or a seat on the Town Board, he'd have my support and vote. I can't think of a SINGLE Republican President or Presidential candidate since DD Eisenhower about which I can say the same.
    Well, maybe Dole...

  • SadOldVet on October 24, 2012 4:44 PM:

    What ever the f*ck you mean by this, Ed.

    I still believe that Queen Ann is just as nasty a self-centered @sshole believer that money (quantity) is the definer of a person's 'worth to society' as her pr!ck husband. "I am rich, therefore I am entitled" is @sshole whether it comes from Willard or Queen Ann or their children and there is a value to having the ameriKan sheeple know that!

  • Hue and Cry/mixed feelings on October 24, 2012 5:37 PM:

    This might be self-serving on my part, but....
    I think it fits in with the character issue.
    It seemed significant when Ann Romney stated she was worried about Mitt Romney's mental state if he won the presidency.
    I mean--wow--opening the curtain there-- the person seemingly closest to him commenting on his mental stability.
    Mitt seems like a wreck to me. Lacking the temperment to lead. She pretty much admitted that. She also was pulling him away from shaking hands after the debate Monday--what was up with that? It reminded me of a caretaker escorting a patient.
    Don't forget Ann used the term "we" when saying it was their turn for the presidency.
    And her son just told a reporter that Mitt is extremely nervous before all debates.
    Lot of information to consider on suitablity. Saw that flop sweat and look of panic this past Monday as Mitt lost the debate to the president.

    I am female. If it was a woman running for president, I would like to know about her husband.
    Certainly cost Geraldine Ferraro.
    The more information, the better.

  • exlibra on October 24, 2012 11:10 PM:

    Of course I want to know about the First Lady! In the case of Mrs Obama, even if I didn't like Mr Obama personally (which I do), I'd be willing to give him a second look just on the basis of "if she consented to have him as her consort, he can't be half bad".

    Also, too, it's the case of getting two, for the price of one; First Ladies are expected to do some real work, beyond just looking decorative. Hillary Clinton worked on healthcare (so, OK, so her plan didn't "take"; but it was a serious project all the same). Michelle Obama has been working (with Jill Biden) on issues important to veterans to and to military families in general and, in her spare time, on growing organic food and getting kids to shift their fat butts.

    I can just imagine Ann Romney: riding around the White House on her horse, and swiping her white gloved hands over furniture, to make sure that the minions had dusted it properly. That's all she's got brains for.

    What's that, Craptcha? "sons catoAn"? Oh well, if you insist... Yes, Ann has produced 5 sons. Whether they're really in Cato's mould though...