“She is very aware of herself as someone who represents African-American women,” White said. “Someone who we really as black women feel embodies the truth about who we fully are. So I don’t know that she is really necessarily going to step out on a totally different path. My sense is that she will continue to be this person who is a leader and who dedicates herself to uplifting women and children, making sure that we understand that we can have better lives.”
While the public often admires her for her life of service, Michelle Obama is still a woman of great power, however indirectly wielded. Might the Obamas, as the Clintons did, use the first lady’s perfect positioning to launch her political career after her husband leaves office, further solidifying her influence? Cultural observers say no.
“I don’t see them as the same type of couple as the Clintons,” said Dr. Anthea Butler, associate professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The frequent contributor to national discussions of race and politics doubts that the first lady will ever seek public office, citing her tendency to put family first.
“I think that she is… committed to seeing Sasha and Malia move forward,” Butler told theGrio. “If you think about it, in four years Sasha will be sixteen or seventeen, and Malia will be on her way to college. So, I’m thinking that’s probably not going to happen in the near future.
“Does that mean that it won’t happen? I don’t see her as necessarily being that person,” Butler said. “Especially when you live in that hot house of the White House, you have to make the firm commitment that that’s what you want to do. I think with the kinds of things that she’s been interested in, I see her not so much in the political aspect, but working in the public policy aspect. That’s a different kind of trajectory altogether.”
Indeed, Butler believes that Michelle Obama’s life — public or otherwise — after President Obama leaves office will be more compelling than any initiatives she pursues in the near future.
“Let’s assume that [the first lady] continues to be one of the most prominent and admired women of the century — what does she do afterwards? She will have so much freedom and so many choices,” the social critic observed. “She’ll do some of the typical first lady things. You can almost guarantee that she will write a memoir. But beyond that there are open questions. Sometimes I think that will be the more dramatic point[.]“
But, don’t count on the first lady making the next few years a retread of the past. Butler hopes Mrs. Obama will tackle issues deemed controversial concerning women’s health and black women.
“If she does go after women’s health that’s one way she can talk about African-American women, through the health issues that face us,” the professor continued. “If she would just talk about fibroids, that would be a really good thing. That especially affects African-American women. Just a conversation like that being brought up in public, that would be a great thing.”
Yet, the first lady’s greatest contribution may be altering the public’s perception of black womanhood. Her next four years will cement that evolution.
“[I]t will do this historic thing,” Butler said of Mrs. Obama’s continuing public presence, “which is to indelibly put into the nation’s consciousness — whether one is a black person or not — that a black woman can be first lady of the United States. Period. End of story. And that’s one more image that we have of an African-American woman besides some of the negative stereotypes that are out there.”
Battling stereotypes and detractors may have been Michelle Obama’s concern during President Obama’s first term, yet those types of stressors may cease to impact her as she focuses on her future.
“Look — this is it. They only have this next four years,” Butler said of the Obamas. “Haters gonna hate. I’ll just put it like that! Haters are going to hate. The first four years were about walking on eggshells, perhaps. I think the second four years will be about creating a legacy. I think she’s smart enough to be her own person at the end of the day. She doesn’t need to please anybody.”
What will the legacy of first lady Michelle Obama be? Will she be remembered for her health initiatives? For her focus on motherhood?
“It’s really too early to tell,” Butler surmised. “She can do whatever she wants to do.”
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.