First lady Michelle Obama has shifted her focus from promoting healthy eating habits to reshaping the landscape of higher education by leveraging her position as first lady to change how lower-income students think about attaining a college degree.
Obama has replaced her former “Let’s Move” campaign, which encouraged kids to eat healthily and exercise, with a policy-driven platform to encourage students from lower-income backgrounds to apply to more colleges. Her goal is to raise the United States from 12th to first in the world in its percentage of college graduates by 2020.
“The role of the first lady is very much undefined. It’s difficult to put a finger on it — they’re not elected officials, but they have an enormous amount of private influence, and they have an enormous amount of public influence,” said Lauren Wright a doctoral candidate who is currently researching contemporary first ladies for her government dissertation.
Unlike her predecessor Hillary Clinton, who faced public backlash for supposedly overstepping the role of first lady after being appointed head of the healthcare taskforce in 1993, Mrs. Obama enjoys the legal backing of her husband, who is currently trying to pass legislation to improve the U.S. higher-education system.
“It seems like it’s going hand in hand in that getting more people to go college is a goal the Obama administration has shown, so getting people who wouldn’t know to apply to apply, getting them to be interested in college, goes hand-in-hand with trying to get them to be able to afford it when they do apply,” associate professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy and Department of Government Jonathan Ladd said.
Since whether or not the position of first lady ought to be utilized for policy making remains a hot topic among Americans, first ladies have traditionally focused on less divisive issues like the anti-drug initiative undertaken by Nancy Reagan and the highway beautification project undertaken by Lady Bird Johnson.
According to Director of the Women’s Center Laura Kovach, Mrs. Obama has managed to discover a happy medium.
“I think Michelle Obama is trying to strike a balance by focusing on a variety of issues that include children and wellness, military families and now higher education. These are issues that the majority of Americans can support no matter your politics,” Kovach wrote in an email to The Hoya.
According to Wright, the role of the first lady, especially in the last three administrations, has been to communicate on behalf of the White House.
“I would say that the first lady’s role is always changing, but I think we need to pay attention, especially to the way the White House communications operation deploys the first lady as a messaging device, and whether it’s effective or not,” Wright said.
Executive Director of Georgetown Women in Leadership Helen Brosnan (SFS ’16) disapproved of the idea that the White House would utilize the first lady’s image as a relatable wife and mother figure to communicate White House policy to the people.
“I don’t think it’s right to use her as someone who can connect with voters,” Brosnan said.
“Since the first lady is not an elected official, it is not within her job description to draft legislation and enact policy,” Brosnan said. “Rather, she should draw on her own personal experiences in her initiatives, as Mrs. Obama has done with her higher education initiative and as Mrs. Clinton failed to do in her healthcare initiative.”
Pledge Captain of the Delta Phi Epsilon Foreign Service sorority Bethan Saunders (SFS ’17) agreed that Michelle Obama’s experience with higher education adds legitimacy to her initiative.
“She is the first African American first lady, which is huge in and of itself, and then also she has had the true American Dream experience,” Saunders said, citing Mrs. Obama’s experience growing up in a lower-income household in Chicago before being accepted to Princeton University and then Harvard Law School.
“I think what makes her so incredibly unique is she had everything stacked against her; she was low-income, she was a minority and she was a woman, but she still ended up in one of the most powerful positions — indirectly powerful positions —in the country,” Saunders said.