Michelle Obama has finally stepped out from the garden and she's got something to say: Move America. You're getting chunky. Get your kids into the park and off the computer. Telling television anchor after anchor anecdotes about her own children and their body mass indexes and the Obama family's one-time penchant for quickie takeout foods, the First Lady, at the helm of a new Task Force
on Childhood Obesity, is nudging America off the couch.
It's a strong, admirable, message. But it's also something else: Safe. Tragically, apolitically, safe. At a moment when an entire year's worth of bickering over health care reform has unraveled into a partisan wrestling match, and the very word "reform" has nearly ceased to be meaningful, tackling obesity is cheerfully unobjectionable. Laudable even. But it's not the most important thing on the agenda right now.
Sure, people will like the folksiness, the do-it-yourselfness, of the obesity project. They'll like the idea of it not being a government effort (though it is being coupled with the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act,
which will put $10 billion over 10 years towards healthier school lunches). They'll like that it's something everyone can appreciate, a kind of live-action, O-Magazine healthy eating project. As a concept it vaguely brushes up against the health care reform debate but without, in reality, getting anywhere close.
It's nonpartisan. It's very First Lady. It's disappointing.
Back in September pundits began murmuring that the First Lady was going to be a secret weapon on health care reform. She gave a press conference
underscoring the importance of reform for women and their families. "Women play a unique and increasingly significant role in our families. We know the pain," of health issues, "because we are usually the ones dealing with it," she told a supportive crowd, who chuckled, appreciatively, when she talked about her girls.
In that swell of warmth for Michelle Obama, there might have been an opening. Mothers. Women. Families. Health insurance. Who needs health care? Moms do! Dads do! Just like you and me! By November the First Lady enjoyed a 71 percent approval rating
, better than Laura Bush or Hillary Clinton at the same point in their tenures. What if Michelle Obama had been able to parlay that popularity into an effort to get America to understand how very nonpartisan health care reform might be? Was that September press conference a trial balloon? Was she then advised to stay away from anything that might have been seen as too political? Too polarizing?
It is not as though the First Lady lacked material, should she have chosen this direction. Indeed, she was pilloried for the momification
of her identity, her move away from professional life, when the Obamas first ascended to the White House. Wouldn't it have been a precious turn-of-sport if the First Lady had slyly taken her mom-in-chief role and played it way, way up? The First Lady could have gathered together a task force comprised of a clutch of women -- moms, mostly -- and presented their stories, simply and without fanfare, to highlight how un-family friendly our current insurance policies are. How anti-woman. How anti-mother.
She might have brought in, say, a widow who lost health insurance after her husband died, therefore leaving the family uninsured. Women, she would have pointed out, are more likely to be on their husband's insurance than vice versa, leaving them vulnerable in the event of divorce, or death, or job loss. She might have invited a young, entrepreneurial would-be mother
who desperately sought health insurance to cover a potential future pregnancy, but discovered there was no way to sufficiently cover maternity on the individual insurance market. She might have shown America a mother who owns her own business and discovered, happily, she was pregnant and that, unhappily, she could not find health insurance to cover the prenatal care, labor, and delivery.
On the individual market
, pregnancy, the First Lady would have told the country, is a pre-existing condition. Most insurance companies will not allow a woman to purchase insurance once she is already with child. Worrisome, the First Lady would have said, because this woman now has to decide between caring for her fetus and going into debt. Maternity benefits, she would have explained to the cameras, are never a guarantee. Rounding out the group, the First Lady might have brought in a woman who had a c-section
and was then told that to continue her health care coverage she would have to prove she had been sterilized. Cesarean sections, Michelle Obama would have said, gravely, are also pre-existing conditions even though 30 percent of American births are via c-sections. The First Lady might have mentioned a groundbreaking report
, published by the National Women's Law Center last year, highlighting gender discrimination in the individual insurance market.
She might have also noted that though Medicaid and CHIP have covered more and more children in poverty, especially since her husband took office, their mothers (and fathers) are all too often left uninsured, unprotected, and therefore at risk
. One study found that nearly 6 million mothers of school-age kids were uninsured in 2008. "The parents, the moms, have much less opportunity to be eligible for any coverage at all as compared to their children," says Judy Waxman, vice president of Health and Reproductive Rights at the National Women's Law Center, noting that Barack Obama signed legislation extending crucial benefits to pregnant women, and more children, but that mothers who are not pregnant did not qualify for those benefits.
Issues, just like body mass indexes, dear to a mother's heart!
Waxman told me she attended an event hosted by Michelle Obama in the early fall. Aimed at drawing out women's rights groups in support of health care reform, the First Lady underscored how health care was a women's rights issue. But then there was silence from the East Wing. "She hasn't been doing any of that lately," notes Waxman, meaning talking about women, moms, and health care. "She switched. [Obesity] is her niche now. Somehow [the White House] decided that she should be more like a more traditional First Lady. [Fighting obesity] is a good thing, it's just not really... policy related or legislatively related."
Who can argue against getting America to get fit? It's true; the United States has been steadily climbing up the scale, fattening up year after year after year, fattening up like so many geese destined for foie gras. "One in three kids are overweight or obese, and we are spending $150 billion a year treating obesity related illnesses," the First Lady told Robin Roberts of "Good Morning America," the morning before she launched her anti-obesity drive, titled "Let's Move!" flanked by dozens of telegenic kids in pre-printed T-shirts.
Oh, some will complain. As ABC's Roberts pointed out, "there are some people who say 'I don't want you and I don't want anyone telling me what I should or should not eat.' " To which the First Lady responded: "I completely agree. There is no expert on this planet who says that the government telling people what to do does any good. So I completely agree. This requires an effort on everyone's part. So we need a tailored approach. We have to get parents information. We want to improve quality of food in schools."
Sigh. Where's the feisty Michelle Obama of yore? She learned her lesson early, in the mean trenches of the campaign, after her undergraduate thesis was taken out and not actually read, and her proud moment for the country remark was twisted and misinterpreted into one that pointed out how supposedly unpatriotic she was. Oh, she's not going down that path again. She's been talking to former first ladies, like Hillary Clinton, well-burned on issues like health care.
When I posed the question of First Lady success by e-mail to McGill professor Gil Troy
, author of "Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons," he wrote. "In fighting against obesity rather than for health care reform, Michelle Obama continues to make politically shrewd moves that reflect an instinctive understanding of the complexities of being First Lady -- and have made her extremely popular." Troy traces her political coming of age to the traumas of the campaign. From calling her husband 'stinky' to the 'proud' speech
, until her triumphant Denver convention moment, Michelle Obama learned the ropes.
As much as we want Michelle Obama to come out in front of issues, she literally can't. She's hamstrung by the very platform she sits on. First Ladies
who try to have an ambitious agenda are beat back. It was true of Nancy Reagan, before Hillary. It was true of Roslyn Carter, who was nitpicked for sitting in on cabinet meetings. The most successful First Ladies, i.e. the most popular, are those like the quiet, malleable, enigmatic, Laura Bush
. I asked Troy about Lady Bird Johnson
who, in her post-White House years, was lauded for her early environmental efforts and recognized for making a dangerous whistle stop tour of the South to promote civil rights. But Lady Bird, pointed out Troy, "camouflaged her more sweeping agenda by championing 'beautification,' which sounded safer, more traditional" than environmentalism.
He added, "Ultimately, rather than simply looking at this as a capitulation to American sexism (which certainly does play its part here), it seems to me that Michelle Obama is very sensitive to her role as the nation's first African-American First Lady. Looking at the big picture, I think she believes that the role modeling and inspiration she can offer -- to blacks and whites all over the world -- by being as popular as she is, is worth it, even if it comes at the cost of being politically potent and seeming to be part of the 'backlash' against activist First Ladies and outspoken women in general."
We've created an office for the First Lady, a platform that only allows for apolitical messaging, for appearance over substance. Which is too bad. Because Michelle Obama, more than anyone in D.C., probably had the best shot at showing how apolitical our health care problems actually are.