First Lady Michelle Obama has penned a 271-page book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, narrating her personal story with the White House kitchen garden. Going on sale Tuesday, the new book explains that the garden has served to heighten consciousness about where food comes from and how to eat healthily.
Obama’s campaign for childhood health has won respect for herself and positive PR for the president in an election year. By offering a personal narrative about her own project, the new book will emphasize her dynamism and reinforce her image as both supportive and independent. Already at a 71% approval rating — higher than that of her husband — the book will make her even more popular. But it also reminds us of the limits on first ladies and the range of their causes.
First ladies tend to advocate for typically maternal, or caretaking, causes in health or education. Laura Bush promoted literacy and education, Rosalynn Carter advocated for improved mental health care. Obama’s childhood obesity campaign also falls under a non-threatening caretaker theme.
To me, Obama is not only a charismatic, intelligent first lady, but also a physically dynamic one. She pulls roots from the soil. She wears sleeveless dresses that off her strong frame. The garden, the “Let’s Move!” campaign, the shoulders and arms — the woman herself projects health, strength, and action.
The book also offers the first lady’s personal experience since moving into the White House. She tells the story of how the garden planted her interest in health and inspired her anti-obesity campaign. By writing from her own perspective, Obama not only personalizes her cause, but also strengthens her public image as a supportive, yet strong and independent first lady. She has a voice distinct — yet not divergent — from the president’s. This will only add to her popularity.
Yet there’s a darker side to all this. Some have criticized her as too outspoken, as “angry” — perhaps out of racial biases. She backed down, or rather let her husband clarify her statement, when she said she was proud of the United States “for the first time in [her] adult life” after the election. Hillary Clinton faced backlash as first lady, but she made strong political statements that Obama has not made. It’s true that their husbands, not the women, were elected for office. But these women have voices, too, that should not always have to be safely apolitical.
Michelle Obama’s new book will emphasize that the first lady has done a fantastic job at establishing her own cause and projecting an image of action and strength, within her limits as a first lady. Still, it’s also a reminder that these women must be first ladies first — that these causes, though important, are non-threatening.