Thursday, May 28, 2009

a Twist of Candor

Yuri Gripas/Reuters - KID TALK Michelle Obama during a visit with third graders at Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Washington.

THE perilous question came from an earnest schoolboy, who posed this doozy of a query to the new first lady: “Do you like cooking for your family, even though you have cooks and all of that?”

In the rarefied world of presidential spouses, this has long been treacherous territory. Other first ladies have parsed their comments carefully to avoid suggesting that they had cheerfully relinquished kitchen duty. (Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush both touted their homemade cookies at times though neither cooked much at all in the White House.)

But Michelle Obama did not mince words.

“I don’t miss cooking,” Mrs. Obama said, laughing, as she took questions from students visiting the White House. “I’m just fine with other people cooking. Their food is really good.”

For generations, first ladies have doled out details of their personal and family lives to humanize themselves and their husbands. But historians and political analysts say Mrs. Obama is offering a new twist by discussing the everyday realities she faces as a professional woman who is raising young children and nurturing a marriage while juggling an active schedule.

In doing so, they say, she is fashioning a more intimate rapport with the public, particularly with a modern generation of working mothers, who often recognize themselves in her reflections about the struggle to balance work and family life.

Mrs. Obama’s approach may also carry political benefits, political observers say. It softens the image of a first lady who is an Ivy-League-educated former hospital executive. It may also appeal to married women, a coveted group of swing voters that went Republican in the last two presidential elections. (In April, 67 percent of Republican women viewed Mrs. Obama favorably, up from 46 percent in January, the Pew Research Center said.)

Always a consideration.

Still, emphasizing the domestic side subverts the notion that family focus is Republican terrain, said Nancy Beck Young of the University of Houston, a historian of first ladies.

Exactly. Democrats and liberals are family people, too, and should not cede that to Republicans.

Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library - OPEN Betty Ford got personal, talking about her battle with breast cancer.

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