It is pretty clear that as a nation, people are obsessed with Michelle Obama. She is smart, she is regal, and she is relatable. She embodied all of the classic traits of a first lady that we expect, and she was rewarded by a slew of followers who watched everything that she did.
But what was it really like for her while her husband, Barack, was in office? What were the rules that she had to follow? Would we be surprised by the things that were asked of her as First Lady of United States?
The answer is yes.
The First Lady is expected to be many things; and while there were many benefits to sitting as virtual queen of the U.S., there were also many restrictions. There is a long history of tradition that comes along with political office, and even laws that are enacted to protect the country from influence, even when it comes to a figurehead, like First Lady. Some things are written into regulation while others are long-held customs that have been passed down throughout the years, from woman to woman.
Let us take a deeper look into what was expected of Michelle in her eight years in office…
15 She Had To Support Charitable Organizations
One of the roles of First Lady is to spend time visiting charitable organizations. Michelle Obama was expected to pick a cause like the many First Ladies before her, and devote herself to it. According to www.firstladies.org, Michelle was supposed to represent the U.S. while both at home and while she was traveling abroad.
Their website explains, “The First Lady is a living symbol, a representative of the United States and as such, they tend to walk a middle ground. One can think of them almost like a "mother of the nation." In the embodiment of this role, charitable organizations are first and foremost on the agenda.
While in office, Mrs. Obama devoted herself to a campaign of tackling childhood obesity which aimed to teach both kids and parents about healthy eating habits.
14 She Had To Watch Everything She Said
As previously mentioned, First Lady is the embodiment of the nation. Everything that she does is a reflection of American beliefs and ideals. Therefore, Michelle Obama had to watch very closely what she said publically while her husband was in office.
For example, she did not openly speak poorly of any one person while living at the White House but since she stepped down, she has been much more vocal about her dislike for certain people.
According to Business Insider, Mrs. Obama stated September of last year, “Quite frankly we saw this in this election. As far as I'm concerned, any woman who voted against Hillary Clinton voted against their own voice in a way. To me, it doesn’t say as much about Hillary ― and everybody’s trying to wonder.”
13 She Did Not Get Paid
Even though being the First Lady comes with significant responsibilities, it does not come with a paycheck. Her position is merely a title that has expectations.
Pat Nixon, wife of then President Richard Nixon, has been famously quoted as saying, “Being first lady is the hardest unpaid job in the world.” While some people working minimum wage jobs doing janitorial work in the middle of the night might disagree, there is something to the notion that this title come with many responsibilities.
But there are perks for being a first lady, as Refinery 29 explains: “Because they're not elected officials and the role is considered an ‘office of honor,’ the first lady position is unpaid. Yes, the job certainly comes with some perks, such as a house, personal security detail, and a pension.”
12 She Had To Dress "Respectful"
Being the face of the nation has significance, even if doesn’t seem so. First Lady’s are photographed 24/7, and while obviously they all wear sweat pants and go without makeup, they are rarely caught doing so.
Even Michelle Obama who has at least has the appearance of being laid back, was always dressed to impress. Her clothing mattered—it sent a signal to the nation and also abroad that she was stable, in charge, and dignified.
Her clothes mattered so much in fact, that should you be a designer lucky enough to have her wear them, it might set you up for history. The Chicago Tribune reported that designer Michelle Smith had no idea that her dress would be worn during the First Lady’s official portrait—but having Michelle wear it wrote her into history.
11 She Had To Pay For Clothes Out-Of-Pocket
Have you ever seen Michelle Obama decked out in her wonderful dresses at a gala and considered where her clothes are coming from? Me neither.
It turns out that as a rule of thumb, First Ladies are expected to pay for their wardrobe out of their own pockets, except for public or historical events. Clothes purchased by the state are then stored in the National Archives.
Former First Lady Laura Bush stated in her memoir, "I was amazed by the sheer number of designer clothes that I was expected to buy, like the women before me, to meet the fashion expectations for a first lady. After our first year in the White House, our accountant said to George [W. Bush)], 'It costs a lot to be president,' and he was referring mainly to my clothes."
10 She Could Not Accept Gifts Over $260
According to Code of Federal Regulations discussed by Brookings, in order to curb what might appear to be any form of bribery, the President and their First Ladies must disclose and source every gift that they receive. Moreover, no one gift is allowed to be over $260 in value—that is a no no.
So while in office, Michelle could accept small things like hand-made gift from a visiting dignitary. But if she was under strict command not to accept anything of significant value—no jewelry, money, artwork etc.
The reasoning behind this regulation makes sense—obviously you don’t want a First Lady to be influenced by an outside source. But that seems like it could get unwillingly awkward. How do you tell someone who is giving you a glorious gift, “No, thank you”?
9 Having An Outside Job Is "Grey Area"
While there is no written law that says a First Lady cannot have a job, it is a rule of thumb that they do not. There are too many responsibilities that are expected of them.
Michelle Obama had a thriving law career—according to biography.com she worked as a corporate lawyer, in public service, and also as Associate Dean of Student Services to the University of Chicago. By 2005 she was serving as the Vice President for Community Relations and External Affairs.
When her husband, Barack Obama, was elected to office in 2006, Michelle tapered off her work. She not only had two children to raise in a new city but also a myriad of duties as First Lady. She campaigned long hours for Barack in 2012, leaving very little time for anything else.
8 She Was Responsible For Certain Events
Remember that many of the First Lady’s roles are traditional. One of those roles, or rules, is that she is in charge of certain hostess obligations. (Side note: while reading these rules, consider how this would look if we had a woman president who had a first husband—he would undoubtedly be in charge of these same issues. What would that look like?)
In 1961, Jacqueline Kennedy was the First Lady of the United States and began the tradition of picking a theme for the White House Christmas tree. Michelle Obama, like the women before her, was expected to do the same. (The Obama White House Archives show that the theme to 2012 tree was “Joy to All”. Sigh. Does anyone else miss the Obama’s? Or is it just me?)
7 She Had To Be Involved Without Assuming Privileges
I know that sounds like a mental tongue twister—so let me explain.
Michelle Obama was not elected into office, her husband Barack was. So while she is a ceremonial head of the country, she has no privileges. She does not influence policy by voting in the House or Senate; she does not help write bills into laws. According to the constitution she is basically invisible.
While this sounds like it diminishes the role of the First Lady, it is important to note that the gig is what you make of it. Many first ladies have taken on enormous tasks while in residence at the White House. Thought Co. tells of how Caroline Harrison was the first president of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and Eleanor Roosevelt fought for the New Deal!
6 She Was Hostess, First And Foremost
It is interesting that in this day and age, in the year 2017, that the role of First Lady is still fairly sexist. There has never been a female president so the status quo allows for the position of the spouse of the president to be very feminine.
Michelle Obama, and every First Lady before her, was a hostess first and foremost. What must that have been like for a powerful, respected professional like Mrs. Obama to shrink into the role of party planner?
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey Michelle Obama explained, “I specifically did not read other First Ladies’ books, because I didn’t want to be influenced by how they defined the role. I knew that I would have to find this role very uniquely and specifically to me and who I was.”
5 She Was To Move Her Family To DC
It does not implicitly state anywhere that the First Lady has to live at the White House. But it is encouraged by the traditions of almost every woman that has come before her. When Barack Obama became President in 2006, Michelle was expected to move herself and her children to DC with him. And that she did.
Interestingly, the current administration has been defying almost every tradition thus far. So too, have they done so with this one. The president's wife only recently joined him at the White House. To be fair, the Los Angeles Times cited that she stayed until her son, Barron, could finish the school year. (As a mother that seems fair enough.)
4 Michelle Couldn't Publish A Memoir Until Out Of Office
This is another one of those rules that is not exactly written down anywhere, but everyone knows and follows: you are not to write a memoir until you are out of office.
Firstladies.org states that Helen Taft was the first First Lady to publish a memoir, in 1914. There has been a rich history of women who have penned books about their time serving as First Lady since including Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hilary Clinton, and Laura Bush.
Michelle herself has a memoir coming out on November 13th of this year which is entitled, “Becoming”. On Twitter she explained, “Writing BECOMING has been a deeply personal experience. I talk about my roots and how a girl from the South Side found her voice.”
3 Vice President Wasn't An Option For Her
This rule is all about strategy; if someone is running for President than you want to choose a Vice President who will pull in a different group of voters than you. If a married couple runs together, they likely have all of the same circles of friends and donors, thus making a weaker team. The better approach tactically is to run with someone who is dissimilar both politically and socially.
Moreover, the President and the Vice President are usually separated. As Jerry Kitich explains via Quora, “Traditionally the President and VP are not even supposed to be together that much, in case something happens to both of them. So you don't even have to see the VP all that much and probably shouldn’t. This would be awkward if you were married to her.”
2 It Is Frowned Upon To Go Without The Secret Service
Technically, the Secret Service can go with the First Lady wherever she travels—but they don’t have to. Michelle Obama created a stir during her time as First Lady when she spent some time in Spain, and took the Secret Service along with her. Tax payers were wondering if she was required to do so or if she had made the decision.
Foreignpolicy.com explains, “The U.S. Secret Service is required by law to provide protection for the president, the vice president, and their immediate families, wherever they are. (Former presidents, major presidential candidates, and visiting heads of state are also entitled to protection.) The Secret Service can advise the president or first lady against a trip for security reasons, but ultimately the Secret Service will go wherever the people they protect go.”
1 She Acted As A Surrogate To Barack
Although the First Lady has little power in theory, she is married to the President—and as any married will attest—this does count for something. Unofficially, Michelle Obama acted as a surrogate for her husband during his time in office.
Michelle was supposed to support Barack’s decisions and back him up when reporters asked her tough questions. She spoke at his campaign rallies on his behalf and recruited voters for him. In fact, her personal pull with the American people probably helped Barack Obama to win the election. Twice.
When her husband was away, Michelle was the face of the White House. She roamed the halls and minded the staff. Moreover, she was a physical connection that people had to the President in his absence; his trusted adviser and spouse.
Sources: www.firstladies.org, www.businessinsider.com, www.refinery29.com, www.brookings.edu, www.biography.com, www.chicagotribune.com, www.thoughtco.com, www.latimes.com, www.firstladies.org, www.quora.com, www.foreignpolicy.com