Rupert Cornwell: Michelle Obama steps out on the world stage

Out of America: Already a national role model, the First Lady arrives in London with her husband this week as a superstar in her own right

Maybe we won't have another Kennedy moment this week. When the Obamas meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace, the American President is unlikely to introduce himself as "the man who accompanied Michelle Obama to London", reprising JFK's quip in Paris in 1961, about how he had been eclipsed by his young, beautiful and French-speaking wife. In truth, of course, Kennedy wasn't outshone. Back then, he had glamour and charisma to match Barack Obama's today.

Still, the thought isn't that farfetched. Two months into her husband's term, Michelle is a superstar in her own right. Her every appearance is a major news event; her every move is tracked by an army of bloggers. Her fashions, her hairdos, not to mention her choice of presidential pet, command headlines worthy of Jackie in Camelot's heyday – and not only on the gossip pages. So much so that you wonder how anyone could put up with such scrutiny.

"I have a more fun job than he does," Michelle Obama told a group of teenagers the other day, when she visited a Washington DC high school. And true, she's not having to save the global financial system, fend off demands for the head of the Treasury Secretary, or come up with a strategy for Afghanistan.

But she must bear crosses enough of her own. A few weeks ago, after she wore a sleeveless dress for her husband's address to Congress, a debate erupted over her well-honed arm muscles. New York Times columnists were at each other's throats over the issue: "The only bracing symbol of American strength right now is the image of Michelle Obama's sculpted biceps," wrote Maureen Dowd. Please, no, responded her colleague David Brooks, a First Lady "should not be known for her physical presence, for one body part".

If you're interested, it emerged the other day that a Chicago stylist named Johnny Wright will be Michelle's White House hairdresser. Fashion designers grovel for the honour of being selected to provide outfits to adorn the First Lady's comely form. And, inevitably, there have been rumours about a new little Obama on the way, à la Leo Blair. Not so, Michelle told Oprah Winfrey last week, she's "not pregnant," and "not planning it".

For the cynics, the transformation is merely a triumph of the image-maker's art. After all, wasn't this the woman who made patriotic Americans seethe during the campaign, when she ventured that her husband's success had for the first time made her feel proud of her country? There was talk of a video doing the rounds in which she referred to white people as "whitey". The rumour was nonsense, but its existence told a story.

A year ago, her approval rating was 32 per cent. Now it's doubled. If anything, she's even more popular than Barack; only 8 per cent of Americans say they don't like her. Big deal, maintain cynics who argue that Michelle is benefiting from a husband who everyone hopes will rescue the economy, from two enchanting daughters, and from a grace period accorded every incoming First Family. The argument has a grain of truth. But there's no avoiding the fact that since 20 January, she hasn't put a foot wrong.

Each First Lady has her own style. Nancy Reagan was Ronnie's adoring and super-protective guardian. Barbara Bush was the nation's grandmother; her daughter-in-law Laura was the sweet librarian homebody, at least until she blossomed out in George W's second term, her popularity soaring as her husband's plummeted.

The omission from this list of presidential spouses is, of course, Hillary Clinton, and deliberately so. For hers is the shade that haunts Michelle Obama's handlers – the example that this White House is determined to avoid. In many respects, the two women are alike. Both are educated and highly accomplished. When their spouses became President, each had just turned 45. Both of them had managed to combine motherhood with a demanding job. Hillary was one of the most highly rated lawyers in America; Michelle trained as one before deciding the law was not for her, becoming instead a community organiser and hospital administrator.

But there the similarities end. "Elect me, and you get two for the price of one," Bill would say, and he was as good as his word. For a while, they operated as a partnership of power, with Hillary in charge of healthcare reform. But America did not take to her. By this stage of the first Clinton term, in early 1993, the heavens were already about to open over the pair: first "Travelgate" – the purge of the White House travel office, allegedly to make way for pals – and then the convoluted but near-fatal Whitewater affair. Soon, the partners in power had metastasised into partners in scandal.

But some couples lend themselves to scandal. The Obamas are the opposite. They may be products of Chicago's infamously sleazy political system, but nothing sticks: neither their association with the convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko, nor the antics of Rod Blagojevich, Illinois's disgraced former governor. Inevitably in these grim times, her husband has hit political headwinds, but the breezes for Michelle could not be fairer. She has emerged as a precious national role model – as anyone who watched her at the DC school could testify.

It was in Anacostia, a poor and crime-ridden part of Washington, where the city's well-heeled white residents rarely venture – let alone an occupant of the White House. You could say it's the capital's equivalent of the South Side of Chicago, where Michelle grew up. If anyone can sell the virtues of a stable family and hard work to the children of disadvantaged black America, it is a descendant of slaves who made it to Princeton.

She has visited soup kitchens and homeless shelters in DC, sending a message to America's deprived and often forgotten inner cities. Less noticed, she has made a personal cause of improving conditions for military families and veterans, something of which George W Bush, for all his warmongering, was oddly neglectful.

Some will say all this is just politics. Every White House since Reagan has been obsessed with image and presentation. For Democrats who have yet to entirely shake off a reputation for being anti-military, Michelle's endeavours are an obvious and major plus. What better way, for a woman who once said she was not proud of her country, of proving patriotism than to go out of her way to help those at the sharp end of her country's wars?

But this week little of this will matter. The Michelle stories will be about her dresses, her hairstyle, her body language with the Queen and similar matters of global import. And with the world in the shape it's in, it's probably just as well.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect