By PATRICK HEALY
© 2008 New York Times News Service
Hillary Rodham Clinton put the first in first lady: a modern career woman who weighed in on policy in the White House, took on political enemies and then became a senator and presidential candidate herself.
Laura Bush put tradition ahead of modernity: low-key and low profile, even though friends say she is a woman of strongly held opinions.
While Cindy McCain is embracing the Bush model – one that seems familiar and safe to most Americans – Michelle Obama has yet to signal exactly what sort of first lady she might be. As her husband, Sen. Barack Obama, travels to Iraq, Israel and Europe this week, she is spending some of the time in Chicago with their two daughters, taking them to camp and soccer. Yet she is not, to use a phrase, just staying home and baking cookies.
Michelle Obama and the Obama campaign are trying to strike a balance when it comes to her image: a woman who is happy at home with the children, her top priority, but who also finds time to hit the road a couple of days a week on behalf of her husband.
But even as she signals that this is no “two-for-one” deal in the Clinton mold, Obama and her husband’s campaign are drawing some lessons from Clinton’s experience as the target of intense partisan attacks and a symbol of broad societal debates about how women should juggle sometimes conflicting roles and expectations. While the two women have yet to chat about the rigors of being the spouse of a presidential nominee, Obama aides say, some of Clinton’s experiences serve as a guide – and a counterpoint – for Michelle Obama.
Most crucially, from a political viewpoint, the Obama campaign is dealing with ongoing attacks on her. The Washington State Republican Party recycled a comment of hers – that her husband’s success and voters’ hunger for change had made her proud of her country for the first time – after she visited there, suggesting that Republicans will continue to try to portray her as being out of step with American values.
“In this business, you say one thing, it’s taken out of context and it’s off to the races,” said David Axelrod, the Obama campaign’s chief strategist. “And that’s particularly hazardous for someone who isn’t a politician.”
To deal with this, Michelle Obama has a new chief of staff and a widening complement of aides – a broader support network than Clinton enjoyed during her husband’s campaigns, or Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of Sen. John Kerry, had when he was the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004. The Obama campaign is also being highly selective about news media interviews with her, preferring shows like ABC’s “The View” and outlets that will quote her at length (as opposed to snippets in newspapers).
After entering electoral politics in her own right, Clinton successfully adopted this approach in her 2000 Senate run and this year’s presidential campaign; by contrast, during her husband’s 1992 presidential campaign, she would sometimes field questions from reporters traveling with her, which at times led to gaffes.
“Putting Hillary in formats where she could speak at length before a live audience – shows like ‘The View’ and Letterman, any chances where she could come into the living room and show who she was – were very positive for us,” said Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communications director in the 2000 and 2008 campaigns.
“The YouTube moments or sound bites here or there on the news was not as preferable,” added Wolfson, who is now a commentator for Fox News.
When Clinton had her missteps in 1992 – and began striking more Americans as overly ambitious and unlike a typical first lady – the Clinton campaign tried to improve her image by putting her in what one former top aide now calls “softer settings,” particularly events with women and children at schools and libraries.
While Obama aides insist they are not trying to soften Michelle Obama’s image or to “handle” her – they say she would resist any such effort – they are following much the same pattern the Clinton team did in 1992, looking for settings that allow her to display a connection with the problems facing Americans.
For example, she often has round-table discussions with working parents struggling to pay bills and with military families to highlight the hard work of soldiers’ relatives on the home front.
Still, the public images, for better or worse, of the wives of recent Democratic candidates – Clinton, Heinz Kerry, Elizabeth Edwards, Kitty Dukakis and others – are ingrained in party memory. The political notion of “image control” – preventing an opponent from distorting your image – applies not only to a presidential nominee but also to a spouse.
Obama aides are emphatic that Michelle Obama is the unHillary in some respects: she does not formulate policy behind the scenes of her husband’s campaign; she would not have a policy role in the White House; she would spend more time as first lady mothering her young children than jet-setting (compared with Clinton, of the “more than 80 trips abroad,” several of which included her daughter, Chelsea), and she has displayed no interest in running for office on her own someday.
Michelle Obama has also said she would be “taking some cues” from Laura Bush as first lady.
And yet: She will have a speaking role at the Democratic National Convention next month. She will be Obama’s top surrogate in some ways until he picks a running mate. And she plans to continue championing her husband’s policies, especially those affecting women, children and military families.
“There is no stereotype for first lady anymore,” said Lisa Caputo, who was Hillary Clinton’s communication director in the White House. “We’ve evolved as a country beyond one image.”© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.