The XX Factor

Why Is Michelle O.’s Popularity Fading?

A New Year’s resolution for Michelle Obama: get those favorability ratings up! In December they were down to 55 percent , from 62 percent in the month before. She is now below Hillary’s average, and well below Laura Bush’s, who kept up a steady 71 percent and higher throughout her husband’s presidency. What’s going on? Is it her kind words for health care reform? Her racy hula-hooping ? Her admission to Oprah that as a girl, she had no idea how to set up a doll house and hated her EZ Bake Oven?

The easy take would be that the nation has merely been holding in reserve this old suspicion of Michelle Obama, this vaguely racist idea that she is at heart an angry white-hating radical. And I think there’s some truth to that, but there is also a gentler way of interpreting it. It’s possible that deep down, the nation is not buying this Jackie O. performance she’s been putting on, and maybe that’s a good thing.

If a first lady’s rating stays steadily high-Laura Bush-it’s a sign that no one takes her seriously. She’s like a puppy, or a bland historical film-a repository of the nation’s need to love the higher office, even when it hates the official in it. Popularity ratings fluctuate when people connect the first lady to her husband’s policies, when they suspect that, late at night, he shows her the briefs. This is why Hillary suffered, and it’s probably why Michelle will suffer some too. In the Oprah Christmas interview she seemed to fluctuate between stiffly bland and honestly gruff, as if the two sides of her are finally starting to war. (Secretly, I miss the gruff Michelle.)

Photograph of Michelle Obama by Kris Connor/Getty Images.