She’s disappointed liberals before. Many expected her to advocate strongly for progressive causes during her husband’s first term, but she largely kept quiet. Historian and America’s First Ladies author Betty Boyd Caroli said that she’d expected Mrs. Obama to more aggressively champion the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, for instance. “I was disappointed,” Ms. Caroli said. “I expected her to be Superwoman. But it doesn’t work that way. Enough voters, it is feared, are not ready.”
And blame Hillary Clinton for that, too, having so disastrously overreached with health-care reform. “Everybody learned a lesson from that. It’s not good to be too political as a first lady,” said Dr. Caroli. (The PR disaster was compounded by Mrs. Clinton’s maelstrom of press over everything from Whitewater to her ever-evolving hairdo, and the fact that her ambitions for a time outpaced her political talent.)
The result: Hillary entered the East Wing as a full-throated political player and left as a Vogue cover-girl and hostess.
“Hillary’s trajectory was the opposite of Michelle’s,” noted Rebecca Traister, the author of Big Girls Don’t Cry, a book about women and the 2008 election.
As for Ms. Obama, the conservative blogosphere still lights up with outrage whenever the healthy-eating crusader is seen nibbling a French fry, but the first lady’s childhood-obesity-prevention campaign Let’s Move and her advocacy on behalf of military families are not exactly Hillarycare. As Ms. Kantor noted, “There’s the question with Let’s Move about how aggressive and confrontational she was willing to be when it came to taking on corporate interests. With the military families initiative, is it rah-rah patriotic, or does it get into darker material? I’m curious to see how complete and thorough a conversation she wants to have with the country about the issues veterans face.”
In the first term, Mrs. Obama’s “mom-in-chief” moniker, derided by the left, allowed her to occupy an apolitical space. “There was some frustration among women, thinking she should do more,” said Anita McBride, former chief of staff to Laura Bush and a scholar of the history of first ladies. “But the women’s movement is about choice, and this was her choice.”
Others agree that Ms. Obama’s old-school approach during the first term was in itself somewhat radical. “I consider myself a feminist,” noted MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry. “But I’m also a critic of second-wave feminism, which was bourgeois, white middle class, and said that work done outside the home is the most liberating kind of work. That ignores the fact that through vast periods of U.S. history, black women were not provided the income or space that they could make that decision. I find it kind of subversive and interesting that a black woman with a law degree from Harvard who’d been the primary breadwinner through college said, ‘I’m going to do what generations of white women have done, do the Junior League kind of work.’”
But even Dr. Harris-Perry sees an untapped political potential in the first lady. She cited Ms. Obama’s work negotiating between the University of Chicago and the city’s South Side: “It’d be really interesting to see if she could navigate that at a higher level—bridging this gap between the powerful and well-resourced and those that are being denigrated.”
Besides, a certain distaste for politics might just turn out to be an asset, creating a sense that, should she venture into the arena, she would be doing it not because she wants to—heaven forbid—but because her country truly needs her. A “Michelle Obama 2016” T-shirt with a snazzy stars-and-bars design can be found for about $25 on Google Shopping.
Ms. Traister compared Michelle to another formerly nonpolitical person who ended up taking out a sitting Republican senator. “Elizabeth Warren is somebody who did not have a political career, who was tremendously influential in terms of how we see the chasm between rich and poor,” Ms. Traister noted. Ms. Obama, she said, “could get very active in immigration reform, she could start talking about climate change.”
Dr. Harris-Perry had a different role model in mind: a first lady who, as “a dutiful soldier,” kept silent about her disagreements with her husband during his presidency but campaigned vociferously as a conscience of the Democratic party in the years that followed: Eleanor Roosevelt. “She became the legacy; she held the Democrats’ feet to the fire. She was very active in party leadership,” Dr. Harris-Perry said, adding that Ms. Obama “might be able to be a kind of queen-maker for women running for office. I could see her on the campaign trail.”
“It’s very natural for that to be the next-step fantasy for people who appreciate her brilliance—oh, she’ll run for office!” Ms. Traister said. “One thing all those who want her to run could think about is other jobs she may want to have in her life, using her own model of working within communities. We need to be aware of is not letting her identity as a former first lady hold her back from having an independent life.”
Then again, you never know. Back in the 1990s, Dr. Caroli predicted that Hillary Clinton would never run for office: “She didn’t look at ease with groups of people,” she said. “But people change!”
And if they don’t, there’s always Sasha and Malia. 2040, perhaps?