Feature writing

Michelle Obama: the presidential election’s real winner

October 19, 2016

Yes, it was a beautiful dress.

First Lady of the United States @MichelleObama is flawless in a custom-made, rose gold #AtelierVersace gown.

A photo posted by Versace (@versace_official) on

The many plaudits paid to Michelle Obama’s custom-made rose gold Atelier Versace gown, which she wore for her and her husband’s final state dinner Tuesday night, not only set the seal on the sartorial pinnacle of Mrs. Obama’s two-term period as First Lady, but also underscored her own political and cultural ascent.

The dinner took place just after a poll conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal was published, revealing that Michelle Obama was one of the most-liked people in American public life.

She is more popular than her husband, than either US presidential candidate, and both major parties.
According to the poll, 59% of respondents viewed Mrs. Obama in a positive light. She is one of Hillary Clinton’s most effective voices on the campaign trail.

It is rare for any public figure to enjoy almost-universal adulation today. Social media and fierce political polarization usually sees sides decamp to clearly delineated positions for sniping.

But Michelle Obama—notwithstanding the extremist, racist fringes—commands a supreme level of respect, affection, and admiration. It is telling that Donald Trump does not attack her. He could not, without denting his own poll numbers even further.

Mrs. Obama’s final State Dinner dress, said the New York Times, “solidified her legacy as perhaps the most adept and successful practitioner of the art of political dressing that any administration has seen.”

The dress was made of chain mail, and so symbolically spoke of “armor and female strength, of the need to gird yourself to fight for what you believe in.”

Mrs. Obama seems real, rooted and recognizable—whether performing Stevie Wonder alongside James Corden in ‘Carpool Karaoke’, or speaking to schoolgirls, or even the skits she’s so natural in, like stalking the aisles of CVS with Ellen DeGeneres—but it is her political passion, clearly and keenly voiced, which is its own most fascinating superconductor.

When Mrs. Obama spoke in New Hampshire last week about how “the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls,” it was a heartfelt speech rooted in her powerful advocacy for young women, and her powerful revulsion of Donald Trump and all that he stands for, particularly in light of the many allegations of sexual assault he faces.

Without mentioning Trump by name—the ultimate, exquisitely leveled shade—Mrs. Obama made crystal-clear her belief that his words and deeds had shocked her “to my core.”

A powerful black woman vocalizing her strongly held opinion and demonstrating her galvanizing strength on such an influential stage is its own pronounced and inspiring symbol.

It was telling that the only criticism from Trump-ville in the face of its emotional and winning force was a querulous, hardly committed comeback from Mike Pence on CBS’s This Morning, who said, “Look I have a lot of respect for the first lady. But I don’t understand the basis of her claim.”

Mrs. Obama’s words stood uncontested, and much-praised. It was not just the language Trump used—grabbing women by the pussies—but his general tone of disrespect towards women that shook Mrs. Obama, especially as a parent concerned about what of this election campaign.

Watching her is to watch a masterful orator: like her husband her thoughts are not only profound, they are passionately held; she connects with a viewing audience. She may possess the trappings of power, but she knows of the real world outside the palace gates.

Mrs. Obama is not her husband’s protector out of duty or expediency, she is his equal and maybe even better. She is not a speechmaker whose words are taken from elsewhere; she is her own person, and has found her own purpose in a role traditionally thought of as decorative adjunct.

When Mrs. Obama denounced Trump boasting about sexual assault, her recitation of “the shameful comments about our bodies and disrespect of our ambitions and intellect” were part of a wider panoply about the institutionalized discrimination against of women, and physical victimization of them, by men. Trump, for Mrs. Obama, is merely the most despicable and noticeable propagator of this social pollutant.

Of course, Mrs. Obama has overseen more traditional presidential-consort campaigns, though even the White House kitchen garden and her anti-obesity causes have been keenly executed. They have not felt onerous, adds-on, or done for show and duty.

More than that, as her speech in New Hampshire showed, it has been incredibly powerful to watch Mrs. Obama transform into a political force in her own right, and to do that in the face of those who sought to delegitimize her husband’s position, and outright racism.

Her style over eight years—right from the red and black Narciso Rodriguez she wore when the night that her husband was elected—through to the mass-available dresses, jeans, and easy cardigans she wore in the White House garden or on daytime chat shows, showed someone who from the very start was going to do things her own way, and not be over-primped and prodded against her will to look a particular way.

Her strength is visible in the pictures taken by Collier Schorr to accompany a T magazine article, featuring four letters, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Gloria Steinem, Jon Meacham, and Rashida Jones, praising Mrs. Obama for her intelligence, style, and becoming such a charismatic catalyst for social change and progress.

It is instructive that during her husband’s 2008 campaign Mrs. Obama faced criticism for saying “for the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country, because it feels like hope is making a comeback… not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change.”

To question received patriotic orthodoxy was itself decried as heresy by her husband’s opponents. But today, Mrs. Obama does speak her mind, proudly and eloquently. The nervousness is now gone, and she owns her power in the least arrogant way possible.

When, with sheer disgust in her New Hampshire speech, she said what was unfolding was “not about politics but basic human decency. We cannot endure this,” she spoke for many who are exhausted with Trump’s campaign where every new low is inevitably out-lowed.

Mrs. Obama’s oratorical powers were again in full flow at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where the distance between Melania Trump’s plagiarized words—from Mrs. Obama herself—and Mrs. Obama’s couldn’t have been greater, in which she spoke powerfully of the responsibility for shepherding the nation’s young children over the next four to eight years.

She also noted that she woke up in a house “built by slaves,” as a sign of the immense social progress subsequent generations have lived through.

Despite the internet feverishly demanding the opposite, Mrs. Obama says she does not want to run for president. “I will not run for president. No, nope, not going to do it,” she said at South by Southwest in March.

Her children have already one go-round as first daughters, she said, and “enough is enough.”

Mrs. Obama said there was “so much more” she could do outside the White House and role of First Lady, “without the constraints and the lights and the cameras…“There’s a potential that my voice could be heard by many people who can’t hear me now because I’m Michelle Obama, the first lady.”

Of course, five minutes is a long time in the feverish world of politics these days, and Mrs. Obama may come to change her mind—and few would be likely to quote her South by Southwest words back at her.

But she may have also recognized, in watching her husband exercise power—and seeing how his foes sought to stymie his exercising of power—a more fruitful set of alternatives to effect the kind of change and campaigning she wishes to focus on.

As Mrs. Obama embarks on that next chapter, we should expect her style to match her words: the real made regal.