Is Michelle Fair Game?

Barack and Michelle Obama appeared on today’s Good Morning America, where they were asked about an ad the Tennessee GOP has created in response to a “controversial” comment Michelle made back in February in Madison, WI.

“For the first time in my adult like,” she said, “I’m proud of my country.”

And the hyper-patriotic crowd went wild. Tennessee’s web campaign ad pointedly asked several Nashville residents to name instances when or reasons why they’re proud of their country, while frequently cutting back to the Michelle soundbyte.

During their GMA appearance, Barack admonished the Tennessee GOP for the ad and called their approach low-class. He also stated and reiterated that they should, “Lay off his wife.”

Though the gesture (and the interview overall) came across as good-natured and even-keeled, we can’t help but wonder about the dispute itself.

Shouldn’t a candidate’s spouse, who stumps just as vigorously as the candidate him- or herself, be fair game for analysts, media, and the public to constructively criticize for any of their public comments?

It’s not like Michelle made this comment at a restaurant, then the server overheard and sold the story to the AP wire. She said this at a podium during a speech in support of her husband’s campaign. Clearly, a comment like that would result in a record-scratch for the millions of uber-patriots living here. Clearly, that record-scratch would result in some equally public opposition, regardless of an after-the-fact restatement.

We think it’s pretty customary for vocal candidates’ spouses to come under some form of public scrutiny. And it’s also fair for voters to take anything they wish into account in selecting a future leader. No matter how irrational people’s criteria for picking presidents has been, it’s still their right to make as informed or misinformed a choice as they wish. That said, lots of voters turn critical eyes to candidate’s families. Some care about the spouse’s infidelity and make value judgments about the strength of the candidate based on that. Others look to the candidate’s wild child children and consider him or her a bad parent based on the kinds of adults those children eventually become. Others think a candidate is a viable choice because he plays saxophone or appears on The Tonight Show.

The point is: you can’t control who says what about your family when you’re running for office. And it’s a little unrealistic to expect your opposition to leave them out of it. The only way that has any chance of happening is not to bring the family into it in the first place. But every candidate relies on an intelligent, compassionate, maybe even stylish or hip spouse and, if he or she is a parent, savvy, grounded, impressively accomplished children to help sell their public image.

If you want them to wave and smile, make speeches in your absence, make appearances in news and popular media, and walk the straight and narrow to make you look better, then you have to deal with the near-constant analysis and nitpicking that goes along with that.

How should Barack have handled the GOP YouTube ad? Differently. It’s sweet to want to protect your wife, but it’s misguided to think you can exempt her from ridicule or scrutiny–especially when countless Americans are watching (and judging) her sit right next to you on Good Morning America.


slb (aka Stacia L. Brown) is a writer, mother, and college instructor in Baltimore, MD. Check her out here: and here:
  • He surely could have handled it differently, but nevertheless, I don’t know any man (or woman) who would sit back, shrug at the comments made about their spouse, and say, “sure, tear ’em apart.”

    Although, I don’t recall Kerry making any statements when pundits were making unflattering comments about Teresa Heinz… *heads to Google*

  • I think he handled it just right. “Lay off my wife,” said good-humoredly, is really beyond reproach as a sentiment.

    Plus, the bullshit idea that her saying that makes her unpatriotic is offensive.

  • slb

    He also said, “The GOP, should I be the nominee, can say whatever they want to say about me, my track record,” Obama said. “If they think that they’re going to try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign, they should be careful because that I find unacceptable, the notion that you start attacking my wife or my family.”

    I think it’s admirable for him to want to protect his family from “attacks,” but I do think that scrutiny of a public figure associated with a candidate is to be expected. That TN GOP video is uncreative and, hopefully, ineffective in addressing whatever their issue is with Michelle Obama’s statement. But I’m not sure I consider it to be unreasonably harsh/mud-slinging.

    Candidates and their spouses deal with the fallout of their public statements all the time. Those statements are taken out of context (as Michelle’s was) daily. But in cases like those, doesn’t it make more sense to set the record straight each time your comments are rehashed and re-publicized, rather than expecting people to forget an arguable comment was ever made or expecting the opposition not to use it against you later?

    Also: I can see how someone who boasts him about being “proud to be an American,” no matter what atrocities this country’s responsible for, could construe “For the first time in my adult life, I’m proud of this country” as unpatriotic.

    I’m offended by those who’ve called her anti-American and insinuated that she hates the country or claimed that she should be more grateful to the country for the opportunities she’s encountered, but I wasn’t necessarily offended that she was criticized for implying she hadn’t been proud of the country until her family started campaigning for the highest office in the land.

    I’m not particularly patriotic. Or consistently proud of this country. I totally understood where Obama was coming from when she made her statement. But I also know some of my fellow citizens just don’t cotton to that. Fortunately, my patriotism or lack thereof isn’t under a microscope. Political candidates’ (and their family’s) are.

  • LH

    I think that Mrs. Obama became fair game the instant she began commenting publicly about her husband and his candidacy.

    As to her statement about being proud of her country for the first time, I understood what she meant but think she could have saved herself and her husband some grief by providing at least some context for those who wouldn’t.

    That said, it’s difficult for me to understand how a woman who, despite her humble beginnings, obtained an Ivy League education and married a man who’s a U.S. senator couldn’t find a reason to be proud of her country before now. For all of the hoopla, Obama hasn’t yet won his party’s nomination to run for president.

  • I think that Michelle Obama came into the campaign without understanding jsut how racist the white media would become during this campaign. She stood before crowds relaxed and confident as though she were speaking in a church women’s luncheon – but it’s not a women’s luncheon! Every word and every gesture is a potential news story in a presidential race where a black candidate is a serious contender. She has learned this lesson the hard way.


  • LH

    Lisa, you really believe that Mrs. Obama was so naive? As near as I can tell her problem is that she’s a bit too candid. I also think she lacks polish. Maybe she wants to. But thus far her frankness has done her nor her husband any favours. The controversy resulting from her ‘proud’ remark and other off colour statements is a glaring example of when keepin’ it real goes wrong.

  • Big Word

    I don’t think it’s a case of keeping it real as much as simple truth-telling. A quick glance at politics over the last 30 or so years will reveal more than a few valid reasons for a person to not be proud of the course this country has taken. Sure there will be people who take issue with that, but her words don’t deserve to be taken out of context, nor does she deserve to be called a person who hates America for pointing that out.

  • I’m glad that all of this is coming out–the notion that blacks/minorities don’t always feel patriotic–because it’s true.

    I was listening to the response by the GOP and the rep said that he was “always proud to be an American.”

    Now to me, that is a very biased statement as we all know that when it comes to race relations in the great US of A, America has not been a place to be proud of. Further more, African Americans and minorities were for many years disenfranchised from the idea of what America represented. For Michele to admit that she now feels like a true American is a reflection of the journey we as minorities have made and the transition from feeling like an outsider in your own home land to feeling like a part of the decision-making process of one of the greatest countries in the world.

  • Resee

    I absolutely LOVE the way Barack handled the GOP criticising his wife – he did it with so much class and he really looked like he was upset by the disparaging comments made regarding his wife. I really like their realtionship and the way they handle situations together – I think it is the way it seems with them.

  • steve

    If you campaign for someone publically you are fair game, period. However, I firmly believe Chelsea should also have been fair game and should have not gotten off so easy avoiding reporters.

  • I agree with Steve ^up there^ somewhat.
    I still think Obama should continue to run a clean campaign.
    Not resorting to poo-flinging like what’s expected of politicians.