Editorial The Guardian, 06.01.2017
Like Eleanor Roosevelt, she was an inspiration to many. But unlike almost all her predecessors as first lady, she knew life from the bottom of US society
“Do what you feel in your heart is right,” Eleanor Roosevelt once counselled, “for you’ll be criticised anyway.” Her advice was general; yet it seems pertinent to Michelle Obama, the most inspirational first lady since Mrs Roosevelt herself. The admiration – even adoration – earned by both women makes it easy to forget how widely they were derided at first, facing flat-out lies: the “Eleanor Tuesdays” on which black women supposedly barged into white women; and the similarly non-existent tape in which Mrs Obama was said to rant against “whitey”. Mrs Obama was accused of a bizarre range of offences including (the horror!) wearing sleeveless dresses, but a constant theme was supposed racial bitterness, flagged up in ways that were barely coded (“angry”, as if only white men could express sentiments distinguishing themselves from doormats), or not coded at all (“uppity”). These attacks were not just politically motivated but reflexive; even the praise she receives has at times been back-handed or condescending.
Like Mrs Roosevelt, she has proved to be not an old-fashioned helpmeet nor an ornament but a powerful advocate of equality in her own right. The Roosevelts had a close partnership yet notoriously unhappy marriage. The Obamas have been frank about marital tensions – due particularly to his political ambitions – yet their relationship remains inspiring to many. Mrs Roosevelt grew up in the elite, but her childhood was scarred by loss; Mrs Obama was born, amid the deep racism of 1960s Chicago, into a black working-class family that encouraged and expected her to excel. Those experiences have given her both a deep sense of what is wrong with America and of what people are capable of achieving. She brought to the White House not only a glamour and poise unseen since the Kennedys, but a commitment to inclusivity. Her hugs and goofy “mom-dancing” appearances spread warmth as well as cool. Most important, she has brought moral force to the east wing of the White House. Her critics went low; she went high. The job’s limitations precluded her disappointing. But her role was elastic and she stretched it. When she called herself “mom-in-chief”, and focused on the issues of childhood obesity and military families, some saw it as a cop-out. She sidestepped issues such as gun control and healthcare.
But whether she became more assured – or always planned to extend her reach – her positioning, as well as the respect she has garnered, is partly what allowed her to be heard far and wide when she talked of watching her “beautiful intelligent young black” daughters in “a house built by slaves”. It meant her potent rebuke of Donald Trump – describing how his bragging about sexually assaulting women had “shaken me to my core” – resonated. Having the confidence to acknowledge her vulnerability as well as her strength has, along with her passion and clarity, made her an inspiration to anyone who believes they have a right to occupy a space in the world, even if that be at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and to speak their truth. She pressed home that message, more important than ever as Mr Trump prepares to take office, in her final speech from the White House today, urging young people: “Know that this country belongs to you – to all of you, from every walk of life … Don’t ever let anyone make you feel you don’t matter or don’t have a place in our American society. You do.” She called on them to fight for those freedoms, adding: “Hope that when people see us for who we truly are … maybe they too will be inspired to rise to their best possible selves.” Eleanor Roosevelt remained highly influential after leaving the White House, playing a key role in drafting the universal declaration on human rights". Michelle Obama has made it clear she has no interest in running for office. But today she assured young people that she would be “with you, rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life”. Mrs Obama has not yet left, but we miss her already.