Saturday, February 27, 2010

Michelle Obama's right to bare arms and other stylish questions. . .

A year ago, when we were all still getting comfortable with President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama’s personal style, there was quite a lot of journalistic clucking about Michelle Obama’s arms; that they were so strong and so often on display.

And this clucking came not just from narrowly focused fashionistas, but from the astutely focused pundit—and frequent NPR presence—David Brooks. His discomfort with Ms. Obama’s public display of biceps was ratted out by fellow New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in a Sunday column she titled "Should Michelle Cover Up?" Ms. Dowd and Mr. Brooks were on their way to the British Embassy . . .
In the taxi, when I asked David Brooks about her [Mrs. Obama's] amazing arms, he indicated it was time for her to cover up. “She’s made her point,” he said. “Now she should put away Thunder and Lightning.”

So what, exactly, was our initial problem with Ms. Obama’s naked arms? Could it have been that we, the American people, were being asked to cope with one style adjustment too many?

Barack Obama, as a candidate, had famously declared America wanted change. Obviously, we voters agreed with him, having had enough of being governed by sartorially conservative, rather prudish people. The Bush Tribe was nothing, if not predictable in their personal style. Remember Attorney General John Ashcroft draping the semi-nude statues in the Great Hall of Justice because he wasn’t comfortable being photographed with them?

First Lady Laura Bush dressed perfectly for her role as that administration’s head spouse -- no non-traditionally naked arms on display for her! Indeed, Mrs. Bush presented us with no fashion surprises of any kind. She understood First Ladies as institutions on two feet, not as fashion forward women who use clothes to give us some sense of who they are.

Of course, we didn't elect Michelle Obama, we elected her husband. And Barack Obama comes with a personal style as well; not so much in what he wears as in how he goes about doing business. We threw out a President who many thought shot from his hip (and was famously ill at ease listening to contrary opinions), for one who has positioned himself as a consensus builder, one who asks us all to be patient while he takes time to be well-informed himself and gives others time to become equally well-informed. President Barack Obama seems to really expect politicians to stop worrying about re-election long enough to actually accomplish things.

Dana Millbank, whom I think watched the entire Health Care Summit, has an interesting column in this morning's Washington Post, called "Obama needs to flex his political muscle," in which he contrasts Gordon Brown's and Bush II's political style (which he sees as bullying) with President Obama's more measured approach:
Here in America, however, we can only watch this [Gordon Brown's bullying] behavior with envy. Our president is not a bully; in fact, he is the victim of bullying. He is bullied by Republicans on health care. He is bullied by congressional Democrats on everything. He is bullied by his own Cabinet. Dick Cheney pauses in his bullying of Obama only for the occasional heart attack.
Admittedly, the allegations against Brown have only hastened his political decline, and there's no need for Obama to start kicking furniture and throwing BlackBerrys at people, as Brown stands accused of doing. Still, it wouldn't hurt for the occupant of the bully pulpit to show some force of will.
His predecessor got a narrowly divided Congress to pass his tax cuts, authorize the Iraq war and give him the Patriot Act, not through logic or eloquence but by bludgeoning, intimidating and threatening holdouts (remember Jim Jeffords or Max Cleland?). Lawmakers weren't swayed by George W. Bush's arguments; they feared retribution.
The problems that plague this country are terribly complex and terribly serious. It seems evident that "talking point" politics are unhelpful in addressing them, yet we Americans seem drastically uncomfortable with anything else. Obama's popularity numbers continue to plummet as he continues to try to work with the people who oppose his ideas, often (it seems) for purely political reasons. He began the year with a 50% approval rating down from 68% last March.

It's a given that we are all worried and all concerned about the country's future as well as our own. My question is what, exactly, do we want this President to do that he is not doing? Are we simply uncomfortable with Barack Obama's consensus-building style?  Do we really want government by political bullying?

Michelle Obama, by the way, has a 78% approval rating. Which means, I guess, that we have gotten quite comfortable with "Thunder and Lightning."


  1. Weren't people knocking Hillary Clinton about her "piano bench calves" during the 2008 primaries? And that she should wear pantsuits instead of skirts because of it--yet others said she was too "masculine" because of the pantsuits? And now Michelle Obama should cover up her highly prized (and hard won--I'm sure) biceps because they look good?

    And some say sexism is dead!

    I think what President Obama (and the Democratic party) needs to do is get tough the way Republicans do. I understand the wish to be idealistic and listen to both sides of the story, but it obviously isn't working, and millions of Americans are going to pay for it in lost benefits or the continuation of being shooed away from health insurance in the end.

  2. GW Bush got alot of things done because the Republicans weren't cowards like the Democrats seem to be. The Dems seem to be fighting among themselves along with the Republicans, you have the Liberals, the Blue Dogs, whoever else Democrats all going at one another. When Bush wanted something done the Republicans stood behind him and got it done by any means.I watch the Healthcare Summit. The Republicans were reached out to one last time, Enough is Enough! Now it's time to march ahead and get this Healthcare Bill passed. From day one the Republicans had one goal, as Limbaugh said to see this President fail.And they never had any plans to try to work with this President. As for the First Ladies arms goes, I feel these people have been use to a certain style for so long, the Queen Elizabeth style. But Mrs. Obama is a young black educated woman who looks different than all the previous First Ladies and her style is different. If my arms looked like her, I would show them off too.

  3. Everything Obama learned about diplomacy he learned in kindergarten and it is us, the Americans who are paying for him not learing good lessons in the childhood. Hope his putting America on the path of "set a good example and others will follow" philosphy works!
    Cynthia Beattie Mcgill