Michelle Obama’s real agenda

The first lady is a woman of ideas, and some of those ideas may turn out to be pretty radical

090409_michelle1In the public imagination, has anyone undergone such a dramatic makeover in the last several months as Michelle Obama? Gone is the emasculating Harvard lawyer who publicly complained about her husband’s smelly feet and snoring. Gone are fears of a grudge-bearing black woman so ably caricatured by The New Yorker’s cartoon of a gun-toting radical with an Afro and combat boots. And so is the seemingly ungrateful Ivy Leaguer who seemed to suggest she was for the first time proud of her country because it was about to elect her husband president.

In her place is a perfectly buffed, toned and coiffed ever-smiling hostess who refers to the White House as “the people’s house”—and gives the impression of actually meaning it. A woman so attuned to the cultural moment that she serves up high glamour to a grateful populace but knows enough to leaven it with chain-store sweater sets and by planting a garden behind the White House to grow her own vegetables. And a mother who demands that the first daughters make their own beds, and makes sure the nation knows she has forbidden an army of butlers and maids from treating her kids “like princesses.”

George W. Bush installed a bright yellow sunburst rug in the oval office to keep himself optimistic; Barack Obama has his wife’s colourful plumage. Her fashion choices—from the sculpted arms she dared bare before a joint session of Congress to her brightly argyle sweater-over-dress ensemble at the London Opera House—are studied by everyone from the New York Times fashion critic to the website devoted to her style, The normally reserved Brits were so charmed when she and her husband visited for the G20 summit that newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic fretted over whether she had eclipsed the President.

But although she once described her White House role as “mom in chief,” she has slowly come to define a role outside the East Wing. She has taken an almost-professional approach to her status as global “role model,” particularly for African-American girls, with visits to schools for inner-city black kids and moving speeches about her rise from working-class roots. She has volunteered in soup kitchens and exemplified model behaviour in everything from academic excellence (Princeton, Harvard law) to proper nutrition—except, perhaps, for the time she hugged the Queen, but even Her Majesty hugged right back. She has made the rounds of federal government departments around Washington on a “thank you” tour to salute public servants, and has advocated more government support for families of American soldiers. She has announced plans to pay for redecorating the family’s living quarters in the White House.

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It’s worked. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in late March showed that her favourability ratings had soared to 76 per cent—up 28 points since the summer. Before the inauguration, she had been less popular than her husband. Now, her approval ratings are higher than his—and her unfavourable ratings significantly lower. But despite her new-found status as international style icon, Obama is also a woman of ideas, a former attorney and hospital vice-president. Now that she has accumulated such a wealth of that elusive commodity—political capital—what will she do with it?

Michelle Obama has her own staff, her own policy director—and her own budding policy agenda. It arises from her background: for her, the personal is political. Her domestic experiences are the lens through which she sees policy. Both she and her husband have talked candidly about her struggles with balancing her career and the care of their two daughters while he was off politicking—and the strain that put on their marriage. “She’s the best mom I know, but she felt that, somehow, if she wasn’t there for everything, that somehow she wasn’t doing a good job,” candidate Obama explained on the campaign trail in New Hampshire in November 2007. “Then she’d get mad at me.”

At the White House, with a work-at-home husband, the balancing act is easier. Michelle Obama says she is able to prepare the girls for school and begin work around 10 a.m. She works until 3 or 4 in the afternoon when her daughters come home, and is able to help them with homework. But fresh in her mind are past scheduling struggles—such as carving out time to exercise at 4 a.m. Pressed to explain that regimen by Oprah Winfrey, she said: “Well, I just started thinking, if I had to get up to go to work, I’d get up and go to work. If I had to get up to take care of my kids, I’d get up to do that. But when it comes to yourself, then it’s suddenly, ‘Oh, I can’t get up at 4:30.’ So I had to change that.”

Those inner conflicts have now translated into one of her priorities as first lady. She calls the issue “work-life balance.” It is more than a slogan for efficient scheduling and organizing. It is code for a specific policy agenda—and it could amount to the most ambitious expansion of labour market regulation that America has seen in 16 years. To some critics the agenda is downright radical—and perhaps a step toward European-style “socialism.”

In 1993, freshly installed into the White House, president Bill Clinton brought in the Family Medical Leave Act. It allowed workers to take unpaid time off to recover from illness, and for parents to take unpaid work leave after a birth or adoption. Since then, there have been numerous failed congressional efforts to expand on that foundation.

When Barack Obama was locked in the tight Democratic primary race against Hillary Rodham Clinton, he dispatched his wife to appeal to working-class female voters. Work-life balance was a centrepiece of her pitch. At a July appearance in Pontiac, Mich., she told voters: “As president, Barack is determined to change Washington so that instead of just talking about family values, we actually have policies that make it easier for working parents to provide the support they need to survive and thrive—and policies to ensure that working women never have to make that choice again, between their kids and their careers.” Obama’s platform was expanded to include two key proposals that have long been advocated by women’s groups and labour unions but resisted by employers, especially small businesses: a federal mandate requiring employers to provide a week of paid sick leave annually, and an expansion of the Clinton unpaid leave law to cover more businesses and more circumstances.

Between moving into the White House, building a garden, and greeting heads of state, Michelle Obama has not yet launched into these issues. But she has sent a strong signal. She has hired as her personal policy director Jocelyn Frye, the long-time general counsel for a Washington-based non-profit group called the National Partnership for Women & Families, which advocates for more family-friendly leave policies. The group has ties to labour unions and advocates positions that go beyond what Obama discussed in his platform, but paid sick leave is its top priority. The second is to expand the unpaid leave available under the Family Medical Leave Act, which currently covers unpaid job leave for up to 12 weeks to take care of newborns, an adopted child, recover from serious illness, or take care of a family member with a serious illness. The group wants the law to cover all businesses with more than 25 employees rather than the current threshold of 50 employees. It also wants to expand the definition of covered family members to include siblings, grandparents and domestic partners, and for the plan to include 24 hours a year to participate in kids’ school-related activities.

The National Partnership’s third priority is to make the longer-term leave paid, either through a federal family leave insurance law that would be funded through a mandatory payroll deduction, or through federal grants to states to create their own programs. How far might Michelle Obama move down that road? Steffany Stern, a policy analyst for the National Partnership, says it’s not quite clear what the first lady’s role will be. “We’re still trying to identify what that role could be, and [her staff] are trying to feel out what that role could be,” she says. But “we are delighted to have a strong champion like Michelle Obama, who is advocating to keep work-family issues very high on the new administration’s agenda. She is a working mom and understands the issues that families are facing across the nation.”

Frye’s appointment sent a message, Stern says. “I think it reflects that the first lady is prioritizing these issues. She is an expert and a great advocate on these issues and will bring that expertise to the White House.” According to Stern, nearly half of the nation’s workers in private sector jobs don’t have a single paid sick day—and 79 per cent of them are in low-income jobs where unpaid leave is unaffordable. “It’s seen as the next labour standard, similar to the minimum wage,” says Stern, who sees “real hope that we haven’t seen before” in the new administration and Democratic-controlled Congress.

In the best of times, though, a sick leave initiative could expect opposition from business groups and critics of government regulation—only 15 states and three American cities have passed mandatory sick leave. In the midst of a severe recession, the headwinds are even stronger. Leading up to last November’s election, labour unions in Ohio collected enough petition signatures to put paid sick leave to a state-wide referendum, where it would likely have passed. But the state’s Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, pressured the advocates to withdraw the measure, arguing that it would cause many employers to leave the state. The unions’ response was to take their fight to the national level.

The small business lobby is firmly against any more leave mandates from Washington. “Our research shows that most small business owners are quite flexible with their employees’ requests for leave,” says Michael Diegel, a spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, the small business lobby group that fought strongly against the Clinton-era leave law. “They don’t believe that government mandating a one-size-fits-all approach to setting benefits is the way to go. Small employers need and want to be able to determine what works best for their business, and to be free to offer the benefits that work for their employees as well.”

Critics of the policy such as James Sherk, a labour policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, say that such government-mandated employer benefits such as sick leave can backfire. Past experience suggests that employers will respond by reducing other aspects of employee compensation. He points to a 1994 study which found that when Congress required private health insurance plans to cover maternity leave, premiums rose for women of child-bearing age and for their husbands. “The problem with paid sick leave sounds like something that gives workers choices, but it limits their choices,” Sherk says. “You could save your money and take unpaid leave. But instead of having the choice, it would force workers to take a pay cut whether they want it or not and whether their economic situation allows it or not.”

Sherk also says the Family Medical Leave Act has led to abuses and has constrained employers’ ability to discipline or fire employees who are habitually late or absent and can produce a doctor’s note for chronic headaches or back pain. “Employers want to be reasonable, but it’s not just the mom taking care of the sick kids, it’s also the guy who calls in with a sprained shoulder but shows up in the newspaper the next day for bowling a 300 game in a tournament,” says Sherk, referring to an incident reported at a Delaware casino resort, one of many examples of abuse Sherk has catalogued. As for paid leave, he asks, “Where are you going to get the money for this? You are already running horrendous budget deficits. What’s a payroll tax? It’s a tax on new jobs. Is this really a time we want to put a new tax on jobs?”

Carrie Lukas, head of policy for a Washington-based conservative women’s group, the Independent Women’s Forum, warns that the ideas would be a radical departure for American labour policy. “Depending on what is passed, it would be a considerable step toward government micromanaging employment contracts—and that is a step toward European-style socialism and away from the belief that free markets and free labour laws are best for employers and employees,” she says. Lukas adds that expressing opposition to paid leave “makes you sound like a jerk,” but government should not dictate the terms of employment to employers and job seekers.

But Stern says that, given the current economic climate, labour reform—especially the institution of unpaid sick leave—cannot wait. “We see this standard as necessary now more than ever before,” she says. “A lot of the most important social policies of the last century—Social Security, fair labour standards, child labour laws—were enacted during the Great Depression.”

Work-life balance isn’t Michelle Obama’s only policy interest. She has also identified “national service” as a top issue. The Obamas have shown up at soup kitchens and urged Americans to volunteer. But the policy changes Michelle Obama supports go beyond rallying volunteers to do good. They include a massive expansion of federal spending on public service programs that critics say are sometimes ideologically motivated.

Once again, her interest in this area comes from personal experience. After leaving her job as a corporate lawyer in the spring of 1993, Obama became the founding executive director of the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, a non-partisan public service program that trains young people as community organizers and leaders. It is mainly funded by tax dollars through AmeriCorps, another Clinton-initiated program that allows young people to earn tuition assistance and living stipends in exchange for participating in community service projects. Republican critics say that AmeriCorps has funded some activities that cross the line between providing direct services and political advocacy. But Michelle Obama says such efforts are crucial to building stronger communities.

On March 17, she appeared at an event celebrating the 30th anniversary of YouthBuild, an AmeriCorps-funded program that trains troubled young people in the construction trades and builds homes for low-income families. There, she made her case on national television for proposed legislation known as the “Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act,” which will expand the number of AmeriCorps slots from 75,000 to 250,000 by 2017 at a cost of US$6 billion over five years. The legislation was controversial among some Republicans who worried that it would be used to subsidize left-wing advocacy groups, and create competition for volunteers that could put other non-profits out of business. One Republican congresswoman, Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, has gone so far as to say the White House was trying to put in place “re-education camps for young people, where young people have to go and get trained in a philosophy that the government puts forward.”

For its anniversary celebration, the YouthBuild organization showed off several dozen of its young participants in white tents on the National Mall. In past years, they’d made the same lobbying trek to Congress to ask for more funding for AmeriCorps, and said they’d never seen so much media interest. Three rows of TV cameras competed for shots; a travelling pool of reporters and a clutch of photographers arrived with the first lady’s caravan. Antonio Almeida, a clean-cut 20-year-old former homeless drug user from Fall River, Mass., who credited the organization for turning his life around, was awed. “The minute Michelle Obama shows up, everybody realizes how serious this is,” he said.

As Obama arrived, a wave of murmurs washed through the crowd, which then fell solemnly silent. She first watched a YouthBuild member in goggles demonstrate green construction technique and materials. She smiled, nodded and cameras flashed. The audiences began to clap, hoot, and shout “Michelle!” After inspecting energy-efficient windows and a sample of eco-friendly insulation, she finally took to a podium and began a speech that was frequently interrupted by exuberant shouts of “Yes ma’am!” “Participating in national and community service is not just an escape for the wealthy or for those students who can afford it—which is something that I couldn’t do growing up,” she said. And, she added: “Barack Obama gets it. He gets it because he’s lived it. He started his career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. I was impressed with that.”

So far, Michelle Obama’s record as policy advocate is 1-0. The Serve America Act passed both houses of Congress this month with bipartisan support, and the President said he plans to sign it upon his return from Europe and the Middle East. As for his wife’s next political move, the nation is watching and waiting. Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the historian at the National First Ladies’ Library in Canton, Ohio, says Obama can’t help but be aware that the clock is ticking on her influence—a message that may have been emphasized when she first met with her predecessor for a private chat in the White House. “Laura Bush recently admitted that she didn’t realize early enough the power she had to change people’s lives,” he noted. “I would not be surprised that she mentioned that to Michelle.” M

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