Sunday, February 8, 2009

michelle obama speaks and 'tongues wag'

For the past two years or more, Michelle Obama's been making thousands of speeches and informal remarks in public appearances on the campaign trail. As First Lady, her remarks have more weight--despite the fact that she has no official role. Even so, I didn't expect to see coverage like the story in today's New York Times, calling into question her speeches to employees of two federal agencies where she reiterated priorities of her husband's administration. These were contrasted with what are considered more traditional First Lady duties: lunches, parenting of her daughters, and other social activities.

From here inside the Beltway, there's no question that local audiences are excited about seeing and hearing from the Obamas, and the idea of anyone reiterating policy priorities from what must be highly vetted talking points is hardly cause for alarm. So why does a First Lady's speaking -- in 2009 -- occasion such notice? Comparing a policy speech to social lunches and suggesting that the speech is somehow risky and out-0f-line is ridiculous in this day. Even the article's title ('Mom-in-Chief' Touches on Policy, and Tongues Wag') uses a tired term suggesting female gossip, when, in fact, the "pro" and "con" observations in the article come from two established female authorities, a scholar of first ladies from Rutgers University and a co-director of the National Women's Law Center.

Missed in this coverage: Obama's an excellent woman speaker, playing an important and often-overlooked role in cheering on career government workers at a time when more work lies ahead. My wish for future coverage: Go ahead and keep the spotlight on her--but don't make her seem like an exotic, out-of-place example, so that women seeking to do more of their own public speaking feel encouraged, rather than called out for odd behavior. (Photo of Michelle Obama's portrait in the First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History by aka_lusi from Flickr.)

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