Joan Smith: Is Mrs Obama related to Miriam Clegg?

The New York Post raised the spectre of a woman making a covert bid for power

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I've never given much thought to Lady Macbeth's political views, but it's probably safe to say she wasn't overly concerned with her husband's plans for healthcare. In our more enlightened times, everyone knows women have their own opinions and tensions are likely to surface in a political marriage. That's why some simple rules have been devised to help clever women negotiate the minefield: bake cookies, support your man, attend fund-raisers, support your man. Are you listening, Michelle Obama?

Apparently not, judging by reaction to a new book about the Obamas. Its author, Jodi Kantor, says aides to the President told her about a "grim" situation in his inner circle two years ago, with much of the conflict apparently caused by Mrs Obama's uncertainty about her role. Kantor's book appears to be a serious attempt to analyse the problems the Obamas encountered in the White House. But, in an election year and with the high hopes that greeted Obama's presidency mostly unrealised, it's been seized upon by political opponents.

The New York Post described Mrs Obama as a "behind-the-scenes force in the White House", raising the spectre of a woman making a covert bid for power. Kantor writes more soberly about "a first lady who disapproved of the turn the White House had taken, and a chief of staff who chafed against her influence". Mrs Obama opposed Rahm Emanuel's appointment as her husband's chief of staff, clashed with him on healthcare and was turned down when she asked to attend his morning staff meetings. Kantor claims the President sided with his wife against Emanuel and pursued a vision "more in line with the one he shared with the First Lady". Emanuel resigned in October 2010.

A wife discussing politics with her husband? I expect it took hostile commentators all of three seconds to summon to mind the requisite historical comparison. Critics of Mrs Obama, a British newspaper reported yesterday, "view her as a Lady Macbeth figure". I assume this is a reference to the infamous episode when Mrs Obama urged her husband to assassinate Mitt Romney – or do I mean Newt Gingrich? And I'm wondering whether Mrs Obama could be related to the "militantly ball-breaking" Spanish lawyer Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, whose views on sharing childcare – she is married to Nick Clegg – caused adverse comment last year.

Actually, the biggest thing going for Obama at the moment is the choice collection of weirdos competing for the Republican nomination. I can see that the notion of embracing gender equality could be a stretch for some candidates, and Michelle Obama isn't exactly a Stepford wife. But attacks on the partners of centre-left politicians speak volumes about a culture that's still struggling with the idea of a relationship between equals. Shouldn't politics be about more than a contest over who has the biggest balls?

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