DANA MILBANK: First lady opts for practical and smart

Washington Post Writers Group Published:

WASHINGTON -- The "feminist nightmare" is recurring.

Unbowed by Politico labeling her with this epithet a couple of weeks ago, Michelle Obama continues to do what her critics regard as frightening behaviors. Last week, she assaulted independent women by showing off the White House Christmas decorations.

"Our goal is for every room and every tree to tell a story," she explained to an audience of military families in the East Room, where her two-tone gray dress matched the silver ornaments on the trees.

From there, the first lady of the United States ushered children into the State Dining Room, where she helped them fold paper flowers, glue reindeer puppets, and make ornaments from cake icing and candy. Under the gaze of Abraham Lincoln from an oil painting -- and about 50 journalists from behind a rope -- she walked the real Bo and Sunny through the room. Obama crouched down to hug several of her visitors, popped a gum drop in her mouth, and told them: "I've got to go to work."

But what the first lady did with the kids is her work --and she's doing it well.

The chattering class is conducting one of its periodic evaluations of Michelle Obama, and is, as usual, finding her wanting. Before, she was too outspoken; now, too demure. A month ago, The New York Times reported that she has been "derided by critics who hoped she would use her historic position to move more deeply into policy." Then came Politico's headline calling her a feminist nightmare.

In part, that's because modern feminism is about women choosing what they want. If a hard-charging role model is sought, she can be found in Hillary Clinton, Kathleen Sebelius, Nancy Pelosi, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan or many others.

But the real flaw in the nightmare critique is that the first lady's traditional take on the role has nothing to do with gender, or race, or anything at all about Michelle Obama. It's about politics. She simply has no practical alternative.

Recall the criticism that first greeted Obama on the national stage: unsubstantiated accusations about her use of the word "whitey"; her comment that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country"; her college thesis about "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community"; even her fist-bump on the stage with her husband. She was quickly muzzled, or muzzled herself, to prevent damage to her husband's candidacy. She hasn't wavered since from her self-assigned role as mom in chief.

Were she to follow her critics' advice now that her husband is safely re-elected, and install herself as a lightning rod atop the White House, the resulting hullaballoo would sap whatever focus remains on the Obama policy agenda.

And so Michelle Obama goes about her job. She talks about the "gingerbread house that weighs about 300 pounds -- it's pretty big!" She explains that the Blue Room is "one of my favorite rooms." She squeezes frosting for the kids ("You can eat that!"), rolls up a little girl's sleeves and uses a dish towel to clean icing from another tot's dress.

Some dismiss that as conventional. But it's practical, and smart. Michelle Obama knows better than to martyr herself, and the Obama presidency, for somebody else's definition of feminism.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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