When Laura Bush ventured to the Thailand-Burma border six years ago, the first lady accused China of not doing enough to pressure the brutal Burmese regime. When Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Beijing in 1995, she delivered a blunt assessment of China’s human rights record that reverberated as far away as South Africa.
Obama’s decision to focus on educating young people — a consistent theme in her rare solo foreign trips — reflects a broader strategic decision to steer clear of political controversies, even after her husband has run his last campaign. She is engaged in a sort of soft diplomacy that is more reminiscent of Barbara Bush’s style than that of her more immediate predecessors, all of whom courted political risks by criticizing authoritarian governments overseas.
It reflects a strategy she adopted early in her husband’s tenure: to develop long-term campaigns around specific issues such as obesity, youth empowerment and education, rather than using her position as a bully pulpit. In recent weeks, she has promoted new federal rules for nutrition labels and a drop in childhood obesity and co-hosted a White House summit on expanding low-income students’ access to college.
“This was her decision — not a political one, in the sense that she decided to play it safe,” one former senior administration official wrote in an e-mail, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss East Wing affairs. “She never wants to show up somewhere and just make a speech.”
Anita McBride, Laura Bush’s former chief of staff, said the public “may have unfairly expected” Obama to act in a more groundbreaking way, given her relative youth and career background. But she added: “At the end of the day, every first lady is her own CEO. They do what they want to do and choose how they want to deploy their influence.”
But Obama’s deliberately soft approach has disappointed some feminists and scholars, many of whom have little expectation that she will shift course now.
“While I personally might like her to engage in issues such as human rights, the timing probably isn’t right in terms of world politics,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor of women’s studies and history at Ohio University. “With the crisis in Ukraine and current controversy about her husband’s handling of that situation, it is probably not the right time for the first lady to be causing other potential controversies on the world scene.”
Obama’s effort to avoid controversy will be particularly pronounced on the China trip because of the country’s complicated relationship with the United States. The two nations are global competitors, and the Chinese government’s human rights record crops up during almost every high-level meeting between the two countries.
This year, for example, Ilham Tohti — an economics professor and outspoken advocate for the Uighur Muslim minority — was arrested and charged with separatism, prompting U.S. officials to again urge China to respect the rights of political activists. Gary Locke, the outgoing U.S. ambassador at the time, raised the case of Tohti and other activists in his final news conference there.
Nineteen years ago, Clinton took direct aim at China’s human rights record during the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where she spoke at length about the injustice of forced abortions and sterilizations and the suppression of free speech.
“It is time to break our silence,” she told a packed audience without naming China directly. “It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.”
Other presidential spouses have confronted repressive regimes as well. Bush embraced the cause of Burma, holding an unprecedented news conference at the White House urging the country’s isolated military junta to accept help after Cyclone Nargis. Three months later, she made the trip to Burma’s border on her way to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, visiting refugees and calling on other countries to pressure Burma, also known as Myanmar, to change its ways.
“We urge the Chinese to do what other countries have done — to sanction, to put a financial squeeze on the Burmese generals,” she said in Thailand.
McBride, now an executive in residence at American University, said the visit represented “serious foreign policy” and raised some concerns within the Thai government. “We knew that was edgy. We knew that the Thais didn’t like it,” she said.
President George W. Bush criticized China during that same trip, saying he had “deep concerns” about China’s lack of freedoms.
Shortly after her husband took office in 1977, Rosalynn Carter traveled to Central and South America as Jimmy Carter’s personal representative, holding private talks on subjects including arms reduction, drug trafficking and human rights. “A pretty amazing trip,” said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, historian at the National First Ladies Library.
Obama, by contrast, will devote her trip, from March 19 to 26, to visiting two high schools and a university and seeing China’s historic and cultural sites, such as the terra cotta warriors in Xi’an. Speaking at a ceremony at the State Department last week, she said she will emphasize the same themes in China that she did during past visits to Mexico and southern Africa.
“I make it a priority to talk to young people about the power of education to help them achieve their aspirations,” she said. “That message of cultural exchange is the focus of all of my international travel.”
Obama’s previous foreign trips amounted to extensions of the consensus-oriented efforts she has led at home to promote better education and physical fitness. In the same way that she has emphasized individual and communal action rather than attacks aimed at snack-food companies, Obama has promoted the aspirations of young people overseas.
During her trip to South Africa and Botswana in 2011, on which she was accompanied by her mother, daughters, niece and nephew, the first lady described her approach to a small group of reporters as “drawing attention [to] and empowering future leaders.”
“It’s a fundamental belief that both Barack and I have, that we have to prepare the next generation of leaders,” she said. “Much of what you start, it may not be actualized until the next generation. So if they’re not ready, then the struggle continues.”
Obama’s approach most closely echoes that of Barbara Bush, who eschewed overtly political issues as first lady. In her memoir, Bush calls a dinner invitation to Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi a “gaffe.” Chinese security blocked Fang from attending the banquet, but Bush writes that she wished the invitation had never been proffered.
Bonnie Glaser , a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Chinese will welcome the idea of a politics-free visit. “The Chinese will be quite eager to keep any political comments or anything that would reflect negatively on their political system off the table,” Glaser said.
In a White House blog post announcing the visit, Obama did raise the prospect of discussing some basic freedoms: “I’ll be talking with students about their lives in China and telling them about America and the values we hold dear.”
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the trip was still in the planning process, said the first lady will raise the issue of freedom of expression in the context of “education and youth empowerment” and “the strength of our system contrasted with those of the Chinese.”
Depending on how she frames it, Obama’s trip will probably be more in line with the one Pat Nixon made with President Richard M. Nixon in 1972, when she famously arrived wearing a bright red coat.
“That was her moment, when she made a very indelible impression on the nation,” Anthony recalled, adding that it meant rare pictures of Chinese street corners were beamed into American homes as cameras followed the Nixons’ every step. “She went around to schools, to stores, hospitals, restaurants, kitchens, and was seen interacting with everyday Chinese citizens.”
Pat Nixon, however, also understood the importance of more confrontational diplomacy. In a solo trip to Liberia, Ghana and other African countries, she addressed legislatures and met with leaders to talk about human rights in South Africa, which was under apartheid rule.
Stephanie Coontz, a faculty member at Evergeen State College in Washington state and director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, said the role of the first ladies has evolved dramatically in the modern age, reflecting changes in the expected roles of women. But that also presents the presidential spouse with a “tough choice,” she said.
“Do you actually assert your own political agenda even when it differs slightly from your partner’s, which obviously raises other problems, or do you avoid it by being nonpolitical?” Coontz said in an e-mail.
“I’d love to see a model where the spouse (which may someday be a man) was supportive of the partner’s preeminent role in world politics but found a way to maintain his or her own separate identity,” she added. “But it’s a really hard tightrope to walk.”