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Does The First Lady Have Political 'Gravitas?'


Now I want to turn to another conversation about the role women are or should be playing in our national life - or in this case, one woman in particular: The first lady, Michelle Obama. Just as commentators are now talking about the president's second term agenda, we wonder what projects the first lady will take on in these next four years.

So we've called upon writer Lonnae O'Neal Parker. She recently reported for the Washington Post on the feminist divide over Michelle Obama's work. Also with us Maria Teresa Kumar. She's president and CEO of Voto Latino. That's a non-partisan group that encourages Latinos to engage in civic life. They're both here with us in our Washington D.C. studios. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.


MARIA TERESA KUMAR: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Lonnae, you recently wrote a piece and cited a poll showing that 73 percent of people approve of the way Mrs. Obama is doing her job but you also wrote - it's actually a fairly tough piece - that there's a real divide here, particularly between white feminists and black feminists. Talk a little bit about that, if you would.

PARKER: Absolutely. Well, the first lady remains overwhelmingly popular but I first started noticing this feminist divide way back in '08 when she announced her intention to be mom-in-chief and that her children would be her priority, getting them settled, making sure that they made the transition to the White House. And slowly, and then with more frequency and urgency you would hear these voices, especially in the feminist blogosphere, is she doing enough to advance the feminist cause? Has she subjected herself just to the dictates of her husband? Has she abandoned her own agency in favor of someone else's agenda? And then how does that especially serve the team, the feminist cause, the cause of women? So you would hear a lot of that in the feminist blogosphere.

But for black feminists who had a historically different center point, just the notion of a black first lady and someone who was able to decide what her priorities would be with regard to her family was revolutionary. And it's only increased from there as Michelle Obama has taken on her causes, her anti-obesity and healthy initiatives. The divide just gets larger and larger as people come down on one side or another of that.

MARTIN: Maria Teresa, how do you respond to this, as a person who's, yourself, very deeply immersed in politics? You were a Congressional staffer. Now that you're working in voter outreach and voter engagement projects - and you're also - if you don't mind my mentioning - a wife and a mom. How do you respond to that?

KUMAR: And a new mom. And, you know, this is the whole point of feminism of - you know, the 1960s and '70s - is for women and the suffrage movement was for women to have choices, to have access to those choices. So, if Michelle Obama has decided that this is a choice, that she wants to be more with her family, that was the freedom that we're supposed to give to us. And what I find frustrating is that the choices that she's chosen for her agenda, to look after childhood obesity and to make sure that we keep in mind the fact that the children and the families of veterans - those are not two small tasks.

The fact that you start looking at young people of color, children, Latinos and you see African-Americans, they're the ones that are suffering the most with childhood obesity. They're the ones that are dying because of childhood obesity. No one's addressing them. The fact that she's using her platform to address this issue is a real one. And I think, to diminish it, is actually - is not only not fair to her work, but also to a reality that we're facing, especially in the lower ranks of socioeconomic areas.

MARTIN: Lonnae, what about that? I mean, Maria Teresa's making the point that these areas that she's cited as her priorities, addressing childhood obesity...

PARKER: Sure, sure.

MARTIN: ...encouraging healthy eating and attending to military families and trying to...


MARTIN: ...lift up and give more visibility to their concerns do disproportionately affect minorities. You know, blacks and Latinos...

PARKER: Well, absolutely.

MARTIN: The military is still disproportionately minority and...

PARKER: Right. Absolutely.

MARTIN: The people who suffer from obesity are disproportionately minorities.

PARKER: So then these causes perhaps don't resonate with the feminist blogosphere because they're largely white, middleclass, upper middleclass and, from where they stand and sort of radiate outwards, these are not causes. They go under the radar for many of these women and they see them as perhaps less serious, having less gravitas, but for a huge segment of the population, these are galvanizing and engaging and these are things that animate their days and their concerns. How do I keep my children healthy? I live in a food desert. How do I have access to better eating and more organic foods? And, certainly, the concerns that military families face without the kinds of resources that some of the other critics of the first lady have at their command.

And so - sure - that's partially why you see this split, because it splits along class lines in a lot of ways.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but please stay with us. We are going to continue this conversation with Lonnae O'Neal Parker of the Washington Post and Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.


MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the dramatic changes being pressed by activists in the Middle East and North Africa have not come to pass in Bahrain, where protests are still going on. We'll talk about events there. It's the latest in our series of conversations that we call unresolved where we talk about lingering issues from President Obama's first term. That's coming up.

But, first, we are continuing our conversation about first lady Michelle Obama. We're talking about what might be on her agenda for the next four years. Our guests are Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino. That's a nonpartisan group that presses for civic engagement among Latinos and Lonnae O'Neal Parker, who recently wrote about the first lady for the Washington Post.

So, Lonnae, we talked a little bit about the first term and the fact that Mrs. Obama chose to focus on childhood obesity and military families. She's continued that. I noted that, you know, over the inaugural weekend, there are a lot fewer sort of official activities than there were the first time around, but there was a ball specifically for the kids - and that was specifically for the kids of military families, so they've really put a lot of emphasis on that. But do we have any sense of - in the second term - what her priorities might be?

PARKER: Well, when I was talking to people for the article, some of the women I spoke with would like to see an extension of that mom-in-chief platform because she's used it, not only to focus on her kids, but as we've mentioned, to focus on the needs of other children in the nation. And, perhaps, you know, as mom-in-chief, she could do gun control. That was one of the things that was suggested to me. She could champion as mom-in-chief, that she could champion, you know, pay equity for our daughters, things like that.

I think east wing officials have said they're still planning and setting the agenda for Mrs. Obama's second term. Certainly, I think we're going to see a continuation of the things that have animated her first term that she's been interested in. Perhaps, because she only took a couple of solo international trips, there might be an attempt to increase her profile abroad, something like that.

But I think we have to expect that her first priority is going to remain making sure that her children come out of the White House normal, and healthy, and sane and ready for their next step. I think that's going to still be her focus.

MARTIN: Maria Teresa, one of the things that was reported during the first term is that the first lady would have liked to have played more of a visible role in advancing the president's, you know, health care reform agenda. And, of course, that brings to mind...

KUMAR: Deja vu.

MARTIN: ...another first lady, Hillary Clinton, who famously - in the Clinton Administration - spearheaded the president's health care reform drive and it failed. She is in the news again, as she winds up her term as Secretary of State. You could argue that, you know, even though she didn't succeed on health care reform, she kind of changed the template for what people expect of first ladies.

And I just - you know, to that end, I just want to play a short clip from some testimony that she gave yesterday where she was appearing on the Hill, talking about those terrible attacks on the U.S. ambassador and other diplomats at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. Here it is.

HILLARY CLINTON: With all due respect, the fact is we have four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.

MARTIN: You know, obviously, she was serving in a very different capacity there. She's the Secretary of State and, before that, she was also a United States Senator. But one of the critics that Lonnae has been reporting on - they say that they just can't envision Michelle Obama in that role, despite the fact that she is equally credentialed. What do you say about that?

KUMAR: I think that's nonsense. I mean, have you heard her? Have you heard her speak? I mean, the way that she actually carries herself, the way - I mean, and I think the best audience was during the Democratic National Convention. She was presidential. I mean, she has the gravitas. What she doesn't have - and I think it is, basically, the ability to go - to soften a lot of folks - of her extreme critics. And I think that's never going to happen. This idea of maybe having her come in and do gun control - I think it would be wonderful to - for her to do gun control, but I think we also have to talk about - what does that mean if she were to come back - you know, to basically take - champion that on?

MARTIN: What would it mean? What would it mean?

KUMAR: And what I mean - right. So I'm not going to dance around. So it's like having a woman of color, I think, championing that already - I think you already have critics of the president saying that he's basically - he's a socialist. He's not for the second amendment. Having his wife carry that on, unfortunately, brings on this picture, I think, that a lot of folks don't want to talk about and that's the part that race does play with Michelle Obama in this presidency.

And I think that, the more we can have that honest conversation, you actually liberate her to be that advocate that we so desperately need as a mom.

MARTIN: Lonnae, what about that? I mean, the suggestion was made in your piece and I think Maria Teresa's saying that there are ways in which she is constrained by race, I mean, in a way that she might be - feel free to put her personal priorities first, because for African-American women and for other women of color who haven't had that opportunity, maybe it's very liberating for them to see that she can put her own family first when they haven't had the opportunity to do so. But there ways in which - I mean, can you imagine her raising her voice to people and what would be said about her if she did?

PARKER: Well, there's a couple of schools of thought about that. In the second term, obviously, there's often a lot more pressure because people feel like, well, now you're free from that reelection pressure so that you can champion more controversial stances. You can take on these additional roles. I think, for any first lady, what we have to remember is it's a custom job and so Hillary Clinton was a certain type of first lady that Laura Bush was not bound to follow in that tradition. Right?

And so Michelle Obama has to do a combination of her talents, her interests, her priorities. I neither would be surprised if she didn't do anything more than the extension of what she is doing now and continue to enlarge this sort of caretaking platform and to bring people who customarily are not interfacing with the corridors of power, mentorship and the White House.

But I also - neither would I be surprised if, as Maria Teresa said, she championed a larger issue, or perhaps if she did take on something like gun control or decide to run for political office, no one would argue that she didn't have the gravitas or that she couldn't make that switch if she decided this were the season for that kind of thing.

So I think the ground is wide open for whatever Michelle Obama wants to do. And certainly, having 70 percent approval numbers as a starting point, as a base, you know, allows her a lot more freedom to have these kinds of conversations and explore these kinds of ideas for her second term.

KUMAR: And let's not forget that, when Hillary Clinton started championing health care, it wasn't with open arms, neither here in Washington nor in the country. They said that she was basically stepping out of her role as a first lady. And I think that what she was able to do was set herself where she wanted to be, which is - now, she's fully evolved into her professional career as Secretary of State and she stands on her own.

But I think what Michelle Obama is basically saying is, my family first, but there's no question that she's an intelligent, strong woman that has now been able to create these choices for herself.

PARKER: Right. And that women's lives have seasons and the choices they make, at some point, may be different down the line.

MARTIN: Lonnae O'Neal Parker is a reporter for the Washington Post. Maria Teresa Kumar is president and CEO of Voto Latino. That's a nonpartisan group that encourages Latinos to engage in civic life.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

KUMAR: Thank you, Michel.

PARKER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.