Wednesday, Nov. 26 at 1 p.m. ET

Real Life Politics - Michelle Obama as Mom in Chief?

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, November 26, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Wednesday, Nov. 26 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her recent columns, her posts on the Post Partisan blog and the latest news.

The transcript follows.


Ruth Marcus: Hi everybody, Happy Pre-Thanksgiving. FIrst off, my apologies for the confusion last week, if anyone signed on hoping to ask questions and found me awol. I'm looking forward to answering your questions today, though.


Richmond, Va.: With all the Clinton apointees, am I wrong to think we are getting a third Clinton term? I am so sad about all of this. I worked so hard for Obama because (a) he was not Clinton and (b) I believed in his "change we can believe in" and (c) I felt inspired. Now I don't know what to believe in.

Ruth Marcus: With all due respect, I'm not sure who you would have Obama choose if he were to rule out all Clinton administration veterans. As he explained in his press conference today, this was the last Democratic administration; it is only sensible for him to go back to its ranks to select most of his team. I think the picks have been very good so far and I'm relieved that service in the Clinton administration, or even long-standing ties to HRC are not disqualifying. The "change"--whatever that turns out to mean--comes from the top, as the president-elect pointed out.


Oviedo, Fla. : Is over-saturation an issue? I am sick of Obama already. It seems he acted like president back in the summer -- the looming inauguration seems like an afterthought. We have seen the pillars, the seal on the podium, etc. Is this the best way to switch presidents and parties in power?

Ruth Marcus: I think the current over-saturation is deliberate: they obviously could have rolled out their economic team all at once but decided instead to dribble them out a day at a time over three days. This was done deliberately to send the signal to the markets that the new president is engaged and ready to take on these problems. So I'm not worried right now about over-saturation.


New York: How does the Post decide which columns appear in the regular/"news" pages and which ones appear in Op-Ed? I have one I feel is misplaced, Howard Kurtz's column, for what it's worth.

Ruth Marcus: Ooh, this is a very good question that is entirely above my pay grade. Financial, metro, national and style all have columns that contain at least a smidgen, and sometimes much more, of opinion. Please ask someone in upper management next time they're doing a chat! For me, I'm just very happy with my berth on the oped page.


Washington, D.C.: Hello, Full disclosure, I was not an Obama supporter, although he has my full support now as president (unless he proves undeserving). But why all the griping from the "roots" about him picking former Clinton people? This seems to highlight the inexperience criticism, in that his lack of it has also left him with fewer connections and intimate knowledge of potential candidates for these positions, so he has to rely on demonstrated expertise. I mean, it's not like this is that movie where Kevin Klein is the president and he has his personal accountant balance the budget. Let's give the man the benefit of the doubt and 100 days IN OFFICE before we start ragging him.


Ruth Marcus: I thought the friend did a pretty good job in "Dave." The griping from the left about Clinton retreads is (I both suspect and hope) only the start!


Scottsdale, Ariz.: Being "Just a Mom" is so very demeaning to describe one of the most important roles life has to offer. A lot of women regret not having experienced motherhood, including those who had children. Michelle Obama does not have personal political ambitions like Hillary Clinton. I'm sure Michelle will find her own niche and be very comfortable in whatever she chooses to do. Being able to make choices...isn't that what being truly liberated means?

Ruth Marcus: I don't think I used the "just a mom" phrase and I was not questioning Mrs. Obama's choices. Being a parent, as I said, comes before being a symbol. But she clearly has felt that the choices are not entirely of her own free will, or, to try to explain it another way, that she once expected things to be more equally divided, and also that she has experienced this tug internally (perfect worker vs. perfect mom) even aside from her husband's choices.


Ashburn, Va.: I think it's good. I think Michelle's alignment with an imagie of Jackie reflects her commitment to family, children, social causes, and her eloquent gracefulness. I don't think it is a regression in the feminist movement but just a reflection of her personal style. Hillary, whom I love, has a business-woman persona and personal style -- business suits whereas Michelle wears a lot of dresses. It's not a negative on either side just a personal style. Just like some men wear ties and others prefer bow ties. Both women are exemplify the woman of today's time -- someone who can have it all and have work/life balance. Both women are working mothers and that's a great thing!!!!

Ruth Marcus: "Both women are exemplify the woman of today's time -- someone who can have it all and have work/life balance."

But I'm not sure they do. Mrs. Obama has chosen--and, as I say, it's a legitimate and completely understandable choice under her circumstances--not to have it all, and to balance at least for now in favor of life over work. I think it will be especially interesting to see how many members of the senior White House staff, say, are women with young or young-ish children, vs. men. Probably pretty few, I'd predict.


Dallas: "What does it say about modern women that Michelle Obama seems to want to be more Jackie than Hillary?"

Frankly, it says that columnists like boxes. Perhaps, if you were to actually ask Mrs. Obama, she might say she wants to be herself -- and neither of those two ladies.

Too, would we be having this discussion if Mrs. Palin had taken office? According to the family biography, doesn't her husband serve as "First Father" to their young children?

Ruth Marcus: I'm not trying to put anyone in a box, but I do think comparisons are one way of trying to make sense of the world. As to what conversation we'd be having if Sarah Palin were vice president, can I just say I'm relieved that we're not?


Takoma Park, Md.: The analogy between First Lady Clinton and First Lady Obama seems forced. Hillary was active in the White House because she had political ambitions. Michelle does business, not politics, so it would be weird for her to practice out of the White House.

Ruth Marcus: Well, it's entirely another question about whether we could accommodate ourselves to a First Lady who had a separate career outside of the bizarrely anachronistic "job" of First Lady--as Cherie Blair did while Tony was PM. The closest we've come to imagining that is when Howard Dean's wife said she wanted to continue her medical practice as First Lady. But on the specifics of your question, I think the division between Mrs. Obama as business-person and HRC as political is overstated. HRC, remember, practiced law in Arkansas, and Mrs. Obama has been awfully involved in politics and public service-related issues.


St. Louis: Who said she wanted to be more Jackie than Hillary? Not Ms. Obama. We've had a first lady who has tried and succeeded in becoming "Superwoman", i.e. Sen. Clinton, and then we've had Laura Bush with whom I can't pick one single issues she's been passionate about. Oh, I guess there was that one press conference regarding Burma several months ago. We really need someone in between now. Ms. Obama will be fine.

Ruth Marcus: I hope so (that she will be fine.) I expect she will, and I think she is making a smart choice to put her kids first right now. On that subject, may I insert a point of personal privilege and say that my 11-year-old, Julia, is looking over my shoulder right now? (I'm at home typing this at the kitchen table.) Julia says it's "good that she's thinking about her kids before she's thinking about the job she has for the next four years, and maybe even eight. But I also think she should take responsibility and try to work on her job a little bit."


Maryland: I'm not convinced Michelle's decision says anything at all about modern women. Consider - Person A is a highly skilled business attorney, Person B is the President of the United States. Whose time is more valuable? Regardless of the President's gender, if the First Spouse's career is something as relatively generic as $300,000/year attorney, the overall cost/benefit ratios obviously point a giant, blinking arrow toward the First Spouse freeing the President's time of all home and family duties that would otherwise be shared by both spouses.

Ruth Marcus: Sure. I just don't think it's quite an accident that Person A has two x chromosomes.


Our new mommy in chief: Why is Michelle Obama taking on this role? First, because she is already so well accomplished professionally that she is confident enough--in herself and in her accomplishments--that she can accept the mommy role without feeling like it is diminishing her accomplishments. Second, she also knows that the "big role" will still be there when she's ready to step back in. Most women don't have this luxury. I don't think her decision is politically motivated, but I think it is good politics--it keeps her out of a controversial spotlight and provides America will excellent first family role models. The Obamas are a beautiful family, inside and out.

Ruth Marcus: I think that's very well put.


Oviedo, Fla.: Great column about Michele Obama. Why are her many fans so hyper-sensitive to any criticism, real or perceived? You must be over-enthusiastic about both of them or you are zapped as a bigot, a dope or an enthusiastic supporter of Bush. With the crazed Steve Jobs fanboys this phenom is called the cult insufficient adulation -- you're overboard or you're toast. What gives?

Ruth Marcus: Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the interesting take on Michelle Obama's role as First Lady. Thought I'd point out a few additional interesting takes at the Root.

In particular, I was interested to learn in the Mocha Mom's take that, unlike with white women, "historically, black women have rarely had the luxury to choose not to work." Perhaps the role as mom in chief is not so much of a throwback in the context of the African American culture as it may appear to be in the majority white culture, but rather a newer, modern luxury? What are your thoughts? Four Takes on the Mom in Chief (The Root)

Ruth Marcus: Could be, although Michelle Obama seems to have the kind of Ozzie-and-Harriet mom at home image that a lot of us grew up with.


Washington, D.C.: I know that you won't like this comment, and probably won't post it, but let's face it: Todd and Sarah Palin are a much more "liberated" couple than the Obamas, with Todd putting his own career and business on hold to become their children's primary caretaker, while Sarah went full steam ahead with her career in politics. But they got ZERO credit for this -- in fact, people like Sally Quinn attacked Sarah Palin for running for VP while having a special needs childr! The double standards that are shamelessly on display are just obscene. Being a conservative Republican means never getting credit for walking the walk on non-traditional family roles.

Ruth Marcus: Duly posted.


New York : Considering the staggering mess we're in, I for one am very glad that Barak Obama gave over the bulk of the child raising chores to his spouse. She seems to have done a fine job to this point, albeit at the expense of her legal career, while he put himself in position to deal with this catastrophe that Bush left us with.

But if we're going to discuss women making sacrifices professionally to give more time to their children, I am utterly astounded at the free pass that Sarah Palin got. She chose to bring a special needs child to term, and then, at almost the same moment, she says, "See you in four-eight years. It's sitters for you for the foreseeable future; I'm off to the big time." Would you do this to an infant child, even one without disabilities? Absolutely amazing. This is one instance where fathers cannot substitute, no matter how they try.

There are going to be some voices raised around the holiday table tomorrow! Hope you enjoy yours, Ms. Marcus.

Ruth Marcus: Is there any other way to have a holiday table than with voices raised? Not in my family! The previous questioner made a different point about Todd and Sarah Palin, and their more "liberated" arrangement, which I think has some validity. I have to confess to feeling uneasy both ways. I was concerned about the degree to which Sarah Palin was exposing her pregnant daughter to such national attention at a difficult time, and also about her decision to take on the vice presidency and campaign with a special needs infant. But of course I'm uncomfortable to some extent in the other direction with Michelle Obama's signals.


Cambridge, Mass.: Hi Ruth, I read your article on Michelle Obama and her mommy-in-chief comment. What do you think she should have said? What do you think her role should be? As a mother of three teenage daughters and an MBA, I have made many career tradeoffs. It has not been easy. I am not nearly as far along in my career as I could be at this stage of my life. However, I have three wonderful, well-adjusted and self-assured daughters. It is a trade off and I am conflicted many days. In the long run, I can only hope that I made the right decision. Thanks for continuing the conversation.

Ruth Marcus: I think she should do what she feels is right for her and her family. I'd probably make the same choice in her circumstances. The phrasing, though, is just so...well, as I said, it's retroness made me wince.


Toledo: I thought your column today was, as I have come to expect from you, a thoughtful and sensible look at the choices Michelle Obama faces.

The problem I have with the sniping she has endured and will endure over this is with the endless questioning of what are very personal choices. She is obviously very intelligent and capable of rational thought, and she is free to go in the direction she chooses. Her choice to be "First Mom" may not be the right choice for others, but how could that in any way possibly make it wrong for her.

I agree that being the wife of the President-Elect brings with it some unique constraints, but within that context she is free to do as she wishes.

Ruth Marcus: Thank you, and I agree. These are personal choices, but she has chosen to be in a public role and therefore I think it is fair and even important to talk about her choices, not so much to judge them as to learn from them and use them as I tried to do as a guidepost to the broader implications for women, work-life balance, etc.


Washington, D.C.: Well, Michelle was already a target before her husband was elected in a way that Hillary never was. On Fox News, Michelle was referred to as Barack's "Baby's Mama" even though Michelle is married and had all of her children in wedlock. Michelle has been caricatured as an "angry black woman" consumed with grievance. In the White House, she will be a target like Hillary was because of her being well-schooled, and an accomplished professional before her arrival in the White House. However, her race will also make her a target in ways that white first ladies were never targets. Therefore, because she is such a target, she has no choice but to resort to a more traditional role in the White House -- at least on the surface.

Ruth Marcus: Boy, you might ask Hillary Clinton if she felt like she was a target during the 92 campaign and I bet you'd get a different take. Both were flashpoints, for different reasons. I gave a lot of thought to disucssing the degree to which the mom in chief self-description was motivated by some political concerns and positioning but decided not to go there. Both Obamas seem pretty heartfelt about being good parents.


Fairfax County, Va.: After Iowa, I began volunteering locally for Obama, including hours in the February cold (remember the Virginia primary day ice storm?) and phonebanking right through to South Dakota. I volunteered all summer and fall. After reading the other questions, I wanted to mention that what I am seeing now is exactly what I expected and worked so hard for. I could not be prouder and happier of our guy.

My only caveat is that I think somebody who just lost a major family member (his grandmother) should be forced to take a week off. Period. You need time to process deaths of loved ones and you function better when you do. Not doing this may be why these last press conferences have been oddly sober, to my Obama-attuned ear, even more than the economy would warrant. Any chance of him taking some compassionate leave soon?

Ruth Marcus: I think a vacation is in the works, and well-deserved even without the loss of his grandmother. But I think the sober tone befits the economic circumstances and his new responsibilities.


Anonymous: To Maryland, who made the comment about Michelle naturally taking more of the domestic chores on, since her hubby will be in a very important job - my impression from both Obamas is that Michelle has done the large bulk of these chores, even when she was working full-time.

I think she is going to see how her kids adjust and make sure their transition goes well. They are still very young and need her. She has also said that her "project" would be to help military wives, with whom I'm sure she feels some kinship, having to take over the household in her husband's absence.

Ruth Marcus: Yes, and she's also said she wants to work more broadly on work-life, family balance issues.


Alexandria, Va.: Big Labor was reported to spend in the vicinity of $100 million helping to elect Obama. Yet as the President-Elect names his economic team, there seems to be little love for candidates friendly to labor. The Secretary of Labor seems to be a second tier appointment who would be unlikely to be part of the economic team or to have the heft to go against a Larry Summers.What do you make of it and what this what may mean to Labor's main priority to pass the Employee Free Choice Act?

Ruth Marcus: President-elect Obama seemed to go out of his way yesterday to insist that Labor was an integral part of his economic team. But I think you're right to identify the issue of the Employee Free Choice Act (this is the proposal that would make it easier for unions to organize, collecting a majority of signatures in a workplace rather than holding an election). The new president is going to need business' help on a lot of issues, and business is dead set against this. So watch that space!


Annapolis, Md.: Looking back, first lady Clinton wore a lot more dresses. The suits appeared when she started running for Senate. I'm not sure if she wore suits when she was pushing health-care reform in Congress.

Both Hillary and Michelle had law careers before they were First Ladies. Whatever Michelle's ambitions, there will be more time and opportunity to pursue them as a former first lady with teenage girls than there is now with young ones.

Ruth Marcus: Can we stop talking about clothes? I'm grateful that Hillary helped make the pantsuit normal attire.


Double standard?: Re: the Pains . . . "The double standards that are shamelessly on display are just obscene. Being a conservative Republican means never getting credit for walking the walk on non-traditional family roles."

Please. Let's transplant the Palin family dynamic, with unwedded pregnant teenager and all, right onto the Obamas. Can you predict the type of commentary that would have come from the conservative Republicans? It would be have been far nastier than anything the left put out -- the only reason her non-traditional family was embraced is because she was the shot Repubs had at retaining their base.

Ruth Marcus: noted.


La Jolla, Calif.: I've been very impressed so far with the transition. I'm not sure what others were hoping for from Obama, but to me he's showing a lot of careful thought and not a lot of politics.

I was wondering about your take on bringing Voelker out to work on economic policy. What was behind his choice?

Ruth Marcus: They've worked together a lot during the campaign, he is an economic eminence grise. I do think it is going to be interesting to see how all these different economic power centers ineract in the new administration. A lot of Big Dogs around.


Alexandria, Va.: I have to agree with the poster who said she is comfortable enough in her accomplishments she does not have to prove anything (paraphrased). I also applaud the Obamas for sending their daughters to school based on what they felt was best for them and not politically pleasing to others. It is probably the only decision they will have the luxury of making in Washington without having to consider the opinions of others. The girls did not choose this; this was thrust upon them and it would have been wrong to make them pawns just to shut certain people up. Michelle has her priorities straight: her children. Because long after the Obamas are out of the White House, the lasting effects, good and bad, of their experience living there will still be with them.

Ruth Marcus: I think the Clintons really helped ease the way for the Obamas on the school choice.


Anonymous: I loved your piece today. I work from home and travel to Boston each week. But the kids are off today and next Monday, so guess who is the social director and lunch maker, while still working? I love my life, and love my kids and love my job. And my husband too. But he read your column at breakfast. We all need reminders. I'm happy Michelle gets us too. Thanks.

Ruth Marcus: Did you have to make him read it? Thanks so much! My kids are off today and Friday, but thankfully not Monday too.


Princeton, N.J.: I'm not sure you put your finger on the correct issue. I don't believe there is anything intrinsic that leaves household chores to the woman; it just that because of cultural biases there is pressure on her to do so, and also because of cultural biases, the man frequently has the more "important" job. When our kids were young, my wife and I had the same job, and shared child raising pretty equally. I like to get up early and she liked to sleep later so I took care of the kids until she awoke. Etc.

I wonder who takes care of the children in the marriage of some of these young hotshot female Congresswomen? I betcha it's mostly the father.

Ruth Marcus: Nothing intrinsic leaves household chores to the woman, certainly, no matter whether or not Barack Obama experiences inner peace while washing the dishes. But in the harder question about who's around for the kids, who deals with playdates, camp, etc., who gets home for dinner--I think it's some combination of nature and nurture but in my experience, while men are getting better and better at this, and certainly feel a lot more guilt than, say, our fathers ever did, it's still an unequal world in the majority of marriages.


Annapolis: What I get from your article is that you agree with Michelle's choice, it's just that the phrase "Mom in Chief" grated on your sensibilities.

I would posit that Michelle understands that as First Lady to the entire country, she will be more quickly and widely accepted if she stresses the traditional roles. "Mom in Chief" is an excellent sound-bite way to convey that message.

Ruth Marcus: Ok, although I was giving her credit for being a little more sincere than you are.


Re: Obama's Transition: I look at the excitement over Obama's cabinet full of smart, practical, experienced, compotent, non-ideological choices, and think, "How sick is it that people are excited because well-qualified people are finally be chosen for top government positions?"

Ruth Marcus: But I saw somebody the other day making the smart point that if you simply looked at Bush's initial cabinet you would not have seen, for the most part, obvious ideology or incompetence.


Silver Spring, Md.: To compare Michelle Obama to any other accomplished woman who's the wife of a powerful man is to miss the point entirely.

Let's suppose for a minute that Michelle Obama is making "unfeminist sacrifices" for her husband (note that I disagree with this premise entirely).

What did people expect Michelle Obama to do? She'll be the wife of the President. That's going to take up a HUGE amount of her time and energy. They have young children (and Barack Obama will have a more-than-full-time job as President, with commitments to the country and the world). There simply aren't enough hours in the day to be First Lady, a mother of small and children and be able to do much else.

Ruth Marcus: not sure what being First Lady means. It means whatever the occupant wants it to mean.


Stone Harbor, N.J: What is the price tag on inauguration festivities? Who pays for this? In these worrisome economic times doesn't it seem a little over-the-top?

Ruth Marcus: Mostly paid for by private fundraising, on which they announced some limits yesterday. But I believe there will be a lot of attention paid to making sure that things don't seem too glitzy--it won't be furs and limousines like the Reagan inauguration--under the tough economic circumstances.


Seattle: One thing that has impressed me with Obama's transition team is how many of them are experienced former-legislators or people with ruthless hardball experience in over-riding legislators and their personal agendas. Remember Volker supposedly blowing cigar smoke in Reagan's face when asked to cut interest rates during the '81-82 recession? This will be a team that brings change to you, no matter how you kick and scream, because they are better at the game than you.

Ruth Marcus: I don't remember the smoke but I do think the legislative experience point is important, and a major distinguishing feature from the Clinton administration first round.


Jacqueline Kennedy: Showing my age here, but when Jackie Kennedy moved into the White House she was a decade younger than Michelle Obama. She had a three-year-old and a newborn. And her career prior to marrying John Kennedy mainly consisted of working as a feature writer for the Washington Herald (or maybe the Star?) She was at a different place in her life than Michelle Obama, and lived at a time when there weren't today's pressures on a woman to be both a top-notch mom and a career professional. She was fiercely protective of her children--something that Mrs. Obama will have to spend a lot more time and energy on in today's 24-hour-news cycle, media intensive world.

Ruth Marcus: It is a different world, of course. I happened to read a lot about Jackie Kennedy last year and see her famous White House tour when my aforementioned daughter was doing a biography project (for which she insisted on choosing Jackie, over my mild objections, mostly because this allowed her to dress up as Jackie for her presentation.) But the way Mrs. Kennedy talked about her role and her relationship with her husband was completely different from the way any woman today would have the discussion.


Re: Oviedo: The problem is: Obama's not the president yet, and the current president isn't being presidential. That's why the incoming President-elect had to announce his economic team in a big fashion.

Ruth Marcus: Noted.


Seattle: I have not one issue with First Lady-elect Obama's decision to be mom first, because she has clearly indicated that it was her choice, which is what this is all about. If she was unclear and only said she was going to be a stay-home mom in reaction to protest, then I'd be upset.

Ruth Marcus: Ok.


Ames, Iowa: Seems to me that this is a situation where Michelle Obama should not try to please anyone but herself. Imagine if the President-elect had campaigned on the Clintonian stance that the country was getting two smart, competent people for the price of one? Even thought the right wing thought it was terrific that Sarah Palin was a "working mom," they might not have been so forgiving of Michelle Obama taking a prominent role in the administration, whatever her qualifications. (Weren't there were plenty of hints from Alaska that Todd Palin exercised a fair degree of power as First Dude in addition to being the family caretaker?)

Ruth Marcus: Noted.


Arlington, Va.: Thanks for your column on Michelle Obama's role. I am very proud of her, and of Senator Obama's, honesty. I think this is something that the new generation generally has in common; we're not afraid to speak the truth, be honest with our feelings. That applies to our roles, relationships, the fact that sacrifices need to be made for the greater good at the family level and at the national level. It's a healthy way to say here I am, deal with it. And usually you find a reward down the road. Don't you think Michelle Obama has a plan for herself and her girls down the road?

Ruth Marcus: A plan down the road? I don't know. I expect she is taking her life chapter by amazing chapter, and this is the one she's choosing to entitle Mom in Chief.


my impression from both Obamas is that Michelle has done the large bulk of these chores, even when she was working full-time: Which seems like a pretty shrewd choice on their part, given that it allowed him to focus on becoming, um, The President of the United States! Just saying. We all need a little perspective, I think.

Ruth Marcus: He quotes her in the book as saying, "I never thought I'd have to raise a family alone." Obviously, she has adjusted but this has not been entirely easy.


Ruth Marcus: Well, thanks again for participating. i hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving, and that the Palin turkey video does not detract too much from your enjoyment of the meal!


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