“Mom in Chief” (or ‘Private-Public-Power’)

I really liked Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention this week, because I thought she delivered it with grace, passion and conviction. Rhetorically, it was clever. If it is hard to make it in the political world as a leader, it must be even harder when you have to do it indirectly, pretending to be in second place, yet subtly getting the message across that you are a force to contend with. Smarter than Hilary Clinton when her husband was running for office, even though both women might be perfectly capable of running the country themselves. She puts herself in the role of the loving and supporting wife, locates herself in the zone of the private and the domestic. Yet she makes her husband’s achievements her own. Not by basking in reflected glory, but by constructing herself as the driving force. He did well because he had her approval. Her approval legitimates his actions. That’s not just a smart First Lady, but a smart political aspirant, no matter how much she proclaims that she is ‘Mom in Chief’. In fact, that term is in itself a symbol of her strategy. Use the private and the domestic, and renegotiate its significance such that it becomes a springboard for the public. The political potential that lies in the role of motherhood is something that Michelle Obama looks set to explore, and I am going to be watching her career with interest.

But there were some things that got hidden in the emotion of the moment that make me think Michelle Obama is powerful in a way her husband may never be. Not just Michelle Obama, but anyone who uses the term ‘Mom in Chief’. That’s a powerful phrase for me. When some people use it – people who have no actual political power – it becomes a sad joke that emphasises the lack of any real power. It’s like when a boss introduces a secretary by saying “this is my boss” and then everyone has a good laugh, because what looks like an expression of appreciation for a crucial support role well played is clearly more than that. It becomes an assertion of power, all the more sharp for being indirect.

So when Michelle says ‘Mom in Chief’, and she is the First Lady, and she is a smart First Lady in the way I have explained I mean it, and she has the potential to be much more influential in the years to come (as the President’s wife as well as a decision-maker in her own right), then that phrase carries a great deal of meaning. She was introduced by a woman who called herself a “military mom”, in itself an identification that calls on multiple layers of symbolic power. She built her speech around a personal angle that was deceptively domestic and private. She constructed an affiliation with ‘the American people’ through her description of early struggles that was surely moving, but also calculated to contrast against accusations of privilege that have dogged Romney’s footsteps. Poor is the new privilege in politics, it seems, and so is the domestic. Her self-positioning as primarily existing in the domestic sphere was a clever way to address her husband’s opponent, in the face of critique of Anne Romney as a non-working mother. Both Michelle and Anne are stay-home moms. But, it seems, only one has the right to call herself that.

I want to make it clear that my intention here is not to support one side or to put another down. I am merely fascinated (as I am sure others have been in elections past and present) by how the domestic, the personal and the private are embodied as the feminine, and further, by how this feminine is then tapped upon as a resource of power. More importantly, I find it interesting to see how Michelle Obama’s speech reveals for me new a new appropriation of power. “Mom in Chief” is a military metaphor, and cannot be a self-effacing joke when set in the context of so much real power. Cloaked in anecdotes of domesticity were affirmations of military might. But somewhat worrying (though not surprising) were the affirmations of meritocracy – if the Obamas could do it, the argument goes, anyone can. All that is needed is the right ethos of hard work and other related values. I am not saying that this is worrying for the American people (although it might be for some). They get to vote in the leadership they want. But I do think that when we in Singapore are applauding Michelle Obama’s support of her husband, we may need to think about some of the things she stands for before we say (as some have) that we need a First Lady like her, or that the values she spoke about are exactly those we want for ourselves. As a woman myself, I think Michelle Obama is worthy of admiration. But I think that seeing her as an example to work towards – either in her position as a woman of power or as a representative of democratic values – is something that is more complex.

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