New portrait of first lady, East Wing emerges

First lady Michelle Obama applauds as she gives remarks during an event, Jan. 16, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
First lady Michelle Obama applauds as she gives remarks during an event, Jan. 16, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

Many are hailing first lady Michelle Obama's first diplomatic trip to China as a success. Yet, a story published in The New Republic by former White House assistant press secretary Reid Cherlin suggests she feels burdened by ceremonial duties.

In a piece called, "The Worst Wing: How the East Wing shrank Michelle Obama," he characterizes the office of the first lady as strained by her impossible standards and external pressures to be apolitical.

According to sources, "Don’t do it if it’s not going to be perfect" is Obama's guiding principle. As a result, issues ranging from "having the wrong pencil skirt on Monday" to "a policy initiative that completely failed" can cause crises among staffers.

Thus, "the first lady’s office can be a confining, frustrating, even miserable place to work," Cherlin writes. While demands are intense, the first lady's agenda is tightly-controlled. Everyone angles for personal attention from Obama, which she rarely dispenses, leading to a pervasive sense of anxiety.

Despite the successes of the first lady's Let's Move and Joining Forces campaigns, which address childhood obesity and the plight of military families respectively, the additional focus on matters seen as superficial is allegedly disappointing. Cherlin laments the first lady as wasting her intellectual capital on goodwill trips and hosting duties, given her education, experience, and dynamism.

He seems to question Michelle Obama's choice to "add value" to her husband's agenda as president, rather than attempting to lead more directly. Others see in his report the double bind Michelle Obama faces as a black woman.

In November 2013 a national discussion was sparked when Michelle Obama was dubbed a "feminist nightmare" in a POLITICO piece for choosing to focus on her family and "soft" issues such as children's health. Yet, some believe her decision to encourage social change through programs alone was informed by the backlash from the electorate Obama faced while on the 2008 campaign trail -- and the tendency of the public perceive her as "bossy."

This characterization continued when President Obama took office. Michell Obama was described as using "sharp elbows" in her White House dealings in the popular book The Obamas by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor.

More recently, Obama was labeled "jealous" in international headlines for holding an expressionless face during a memorial for Nelson Mandela during which President Obama joked during a selfie with an attractive, female leader. 

Writing for Think Progress, writer Bryce Covert suggests that the first lady is judged more harshly for how she balances motherhood with power because she is African-American.

"Women and people of color have the odds stacked against them in the workplace, particularly in high-wage professions like the law, and Michelle Obama faces both sets of barriers," Covert writes. Citing new statistics, the longstanding trope that people don't like female bosses who display strong leadership styles is described as a reason the first lady is criticized. Yet, blacks must over perform to compensate for discrimination, Covert explains, creating a difficult balancing act.

Washington Post opinion writer Kathleen Parker responded to this latest jab at Obama with the curt headline: "Lighten up on the first lady." To her, Cherlin's New Republic piece is the just the latest in a long line of ill-informed baseless commentary.