The two faces of Michelle Obama

Loving or hating the first lady may be a political litmus test

The two faces of Michelle

John Paul Filo/CBS via Getty Images

There are two Michelle Obamas, depending on what media you consume. The first version of the U.S. first lady is in the inspiring books with titles like Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style, and the upcoming What Would Michelle Do?. The other Michelle Obama is the one Rush Limbaugh calls “Michelle, My Butt,” the one National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson proclaimed “had become increasingly angry since her undergraduate days.” Laura Bush was mostly ignored, even by her husband’s foes, but loving or hating Michelle Obama may be turning into a political litmus test.

The first Michelle is popular in fashion magazines, which celebrate her style choices and emphasis on healthy eating. “Michelle Obama understands that style is much more than an aesthetic choice or political tool,” wrote Kate Beatts, a former Harper’s Bazaar editor, in Everyday Icon. “It is the expression of one’s life, one’s way of being.” The entertainment industry has embraced her, too. The sitcom iCarly featured her in an episode earlier this year, the first time a first lady had been so immortalized since Nancy Reagan showed up on Diff’rent Strokes.

But if you turn to Fox News or talk radio, Mrs. Obama’s emphasis on personal style comes off looking sinister. In particular, her anti-obesity campaign is seen as an excuse for a government power grab. Rebecca Hagelin, who writes the column “How to Save Your Family” for the Washington Times, wrote that Mrs. Obama “has assumed the air of ‘government knows best’ rather than empowering parents to make informed decisions about what’s best for their families.” Michelle Malkin, a columnist and Fox contributor, claimed the initiative is meant to enrich labour unions involved in serving healthy lunches: “The biggest beneficiaries of her efforts,” Malkin wrote, “have been her husband’s deep-pocketed pals at the Service Employees International Union.”

Oliver Willis, a liberal African-American blogger, isn’t sure that this portrayal is directly related to race, arguing that it’s mainly political. “I think, historically, Republicans have an adverse reaction to Democratic first ladies,” Willis says. “It’s hard to say whether the hatred of Mrs. Obama is more virulent—conservatives did accuse Mrs. Clinton of everything under the sun, including aiding and abetting murder.” So while the president of iCarly’s network told USA Today that the episode should work “regardless of your political affinity,” everything Michelle Obama does is political to Obama opponents: the site Fox Nation took a joke from her episode (“I kind of like being called ‘Your Excellency’ ”) and implied it was her own opinion.

Willis doesn’t think that these attacks are likely to let up. “The biggest sin,” he says, “is the sin of being married to a Democratic president. That’s reason enough in their eyes.” But unlike Hillary Clinton, who wasn’t always loved by liberals, Michelle Obama has devoted fans to defend her. The stars of the hit satirical sketch comedy TV show Key & Peele, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, expressed their outrage about anti-Michelle sentiment. “When I hear people talk smack about Michelle,” Key told blogger Alyssa Rosenberg, “it drives me so crazy. What on Earth has this woman done?”

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