Is it time for Michelle Obama to push more than fitness with her mantle?

Perhaps the elusive Mrs. O should pull a Hillary, and run herself
First Lady Michelle Obama announces the Best Picture Oscar to Argo live from the Diplomatic Room of the White House, Feb. 24, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
The elusive Mrs. O
Pete Souza/White House

When Lexie Croft, a Wyoming mother, had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to video chat with the first lady of the United States this week, her complaint was corn dogs. The deep-fried hot dogs on a stick were being offered for lunch at her child’s public school, where, she said, “meal options include nachos with cheese sauce!”

Michelle Obama offered more than sympathy: she had a plan. Call her husband’s Department of Agriculture, which had just come out with new nutritional standards for public schools, she instructed. “They have people on staff” to help schools fix their menus. She encouraged the mother to “work with” like-minded parents and teachers if “your school lunches are not improving.”

This is what Obama does when she’s not donning couture gowns: her “Let’s Move!” campaign goes after the corn dogs, couch potatoes and the one-third of American kids who are overweight or obese. She does so with the carefully calibrated ferocity she brought to helping her husband get elected: just enough to be effective, but not so much that she’d look pushy, or worse, angry.

“We’re going to get the whole entire public school system moving—that’s our goal,” Obama declared on the video chat, a Google+ “fireside hangout.”

But is all of this really enough for someone with Michelle Obama’s pedigree and potential? Obama, who just turned 49, says she’s having a mid-life crisis. Or at least that’s the reason she gave for cutting her bangs for her husband’s second inauguration in January. “I couldn’t get a sports car. They won’t let me bungee jump. So instead, I cut my bangs,” she told TV cooking show host Rachel Ray. Only her stylist knows for sure if she was joking, but at the midpoint of her tenure as first lady, even her supporters are asking whether there’s more to the job than doing push-ups with talk-show hosts and growing organic tomatoes in the White House garden.

For some, her appearance at the Oscars, to crown Argo the year’s Best Picture—coming on the heels of a booty-shaking “Mom dance” skit with late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon—was a last straw. Conservative critics clucked that she’d diminished the presidency. But the most scathing criticism of her “frivolity” came from her own supporters.

“It’s time for first lady Michelle Obama to raise her game,” wrote Courtland Milloy, an African-American columnist for the Washington Post. “Nothing wrong with telling kids to eat their peas or showing them how to hula hoop. But after four years of focusing on the body, she’d do well to spend these next four building strong minds,” he wrote. He quoted the chairwoman of the National Congress of Black Women, E. Faye Williams, who said she’d like Obama to “talk more about how she overcame her own difficulties and encourage girls not to back away from goals that may seem out of reach.”

Indeed, Obama’s personal story is inspirational. Michelle Robinson grew up the daughter of a disabled city pump operator in a one-bedroom apartment on Chicago’s South Side, where she and her brother slept in a living room. Yet she went on to attend Princeton University and Harvard Law School and was the attorney assigned to mentor an intern named Barack. “She ought to be under consideration for a seat on the Supreme Court,” harrumphed Milloy, “not recruited as a presenter in some Hollywood movie contest.”

Others are suggesting she follow in Hillary Clinton’s footsteps and run for office. “I think she will run for something because I think she is just too capable, and now a public figure and interested in public policy,” Lanny Davis, an adviser and friend of the Clintons, told HuffPost Live last month.

But Obama has been dismissive. “I have no interest in politics. Never have, never will,” she said last May on The View.

Journalist Jodi Kantor, who interviewed the couple extensively for her book, The Obamas, says she will “eat [her] book” if Mrs. O ever runs for office. “Her antipathy to electoral politics is still pretty strong,” Kantor said. “She was an avid campaigner” last year, she added. “But it was the last campaign.”

Kantor doesn’t expect Obama to change her focus from nutrition and military families in the second term. “She is a consistent, disciplined force. She follows a couple of rules and the most important is: never do anything that could be considered a distraction from what her husband is doing,” she says. “Her influence is greatest when she appears not to be exercising it.”

Michelle Obama has a higher national approval rating than most politicians—67 per cent, compared with her husband’s 52 per cent, according to a January poll—because she steers clear of controversy. Her nutrition and fitness agenda complements her husband’s efforts to reduce the long-term costs of health care.

But she faces a strategic choice: how ambitiously to push it? “It’s hard to find anyone to disagree that kids should get more exercise,” says Kantor. “The question is whether she’ll take on harder fights, such as junk-food advertising to kids, which would require taking on corporations with vested interests.”

The first lady is aware of the pitfalls of her unelected role. In her recent online chat, she spoke with the caution and precision of a Mideast peace negotiator. She bantered, gamely answering questions about her favourite snacks: protein shakes and fruits—“we have apples all over the White House, including our residence”—and about strategies to keep Bo from becoming a “fat, lazy dog.” But when a nutrition advocate asked for regulations to keep food-stamp recipients from buying sodas, Obama said that was an issue for elected lawmakers.

Asked about motivating overweight teenagers, Obama walked the minefield of body image: “Let’s not make this about looks. I never talked about weight in my household. We just started making changes.”

The no-excuses side of the high-achiever came out, too. A third-grader from Maine asked how kids can get enough exercise when it’s so cold outside. “Roll around in the snow,” Obama replied. What about schools that don’t have outdoor space? Do a 15-minute exercise routine at your desk, she replied. What about poor inner-city kids who can’t exercise outside because the streets aren’t safe? Obama hearkened back to her own childhood, when she romped around a church basement. “The church was a safe haven for us,” she said.

And as for the calls to “up her game” to help raise the sights of young black women, that’s missing the point, says Cassandra Chaney, a sociologist at Louisiana State University. Her studies suggest the Obamas are influencing both young and old African Americans to aspire to more education—and more marriage, especially—simply through the power of their example. Chaney cites “their body language: the fact of them holding hands, touching, or kissing in public displays of affection, the way they support each other. They really encourage African Americans who have never considered marriage to consider marriage,” she says, calling the Obamas a more powerful cultural influence than the Cosby Show, especially at a time when black marriage rates are far below those of whites and Hispanics, and many black children are being raised by single parents. “The Huxtables, beloved as they were, were a fiction,” she says. “This is real.”

And that frivolous Oscar thing? The first lady wants you to know she was nervous. “I thought I’d drop the envelope, I thought I’d get the name wrong. It’s just an awesome moment for anyone who grew up like most Americans do, watching the Oscars,” she said. “But I got through it.”