As Democrats and progressives grasp for any string of hope post–Election Day, Michelle Obama has emerged as a favored leader for these troubling times.
“The internet really wants Michelle Obama to run for president in 2020,” CBS reported Thursday, echoing other reports of loosely organized Twitter campaigns to get the first lady to run. On Thursday morning, Ben Schwartz, Slate’s favorite New Yorker cartoonist, published a drawing of a therapist advising her young patient to “skip denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, and go straight to Michelle in 2020.”
There is no shortage of reasons why Obama appeals to those seeking comfort in the face of four years under a man who has pledged to terrorize just about everyone in America besides straight white men. In many ways, she’s the antithesis of Donald Trump. She rose from modest roots to become an academic star and respected lawyer; Trump got a $14 million loan from his father in 1985, then drove businesses into bankruptcy and cheated contractors out of fair pay. Obama is an eloquent, empathetic speaker with a cool temperament. Trump yells epithets and points fingers. Obama is down to look silly for a good cause. Trump is incapable of comprehending irony or self-deprecation. Obama is a descendant of slaves living in the White House. Trump denied black people the right to live in apartment buildings he owned. At every turn, where Trump goes low, Obama goes high.
But thrusting her into the running for the Democratic nomination is shortsighted and counterproductive. First of all, Michelle 2020 is almost certainly not going to happen. Obama has said on multiple occasions that she doesn’t want to run. After Obama’s barn-burner at the Democratic National Convention in July, Jon Favreau, Barack Obama’s former head speechwriter, tweeted that he’d “bet anyone any amount of money” that she won’t run.
She has also never held political office or advocated for issues that engender divisive opinions. Veterans’ families, vegetables for kids, exercise—these are things just about everyone wants to support. What does Obama think about drone warfare? How would she improve upon Obamacare? Does she support public funding for abortion? Nobody knows. And as soon as they do, Obama will lose the main reason for her broad appeal: her relative political neutrality in the public eye. No one can use her voting record against her, because she doesn’t have one. Yet.
I’ve heard from several friends that older relatives who hate Hillary Clinton absolutely love Michelle Obama. Clinton chafed against the boundaries of first-ladydom; she scoffed at the idea that she should be baking cookies and made a strong, semi-successful push for health care reform. Obama has similarly and subversively expanded the function of first lady, but in a subtler fashion, in part because of the burdensome double standards she faced as the first black woman in the role. But she’s never sought power. Clinton enjoyed high approval ratings while serving as a senator and secretary of state, but they tanked every time she actually campaigned for a position. As studies have shown in the business world, people find power-seeking women who advocate for themselves unseemly and self-obsessed. A presidential candidate goes around for months telling the country why she is the best person for the most powerful job in the world. Maybe Obama seems nonthreatening, humbler, and less ambitious because she’s never stood on a dais and proclaimed herself qualified to be president, which is the moment public opinion often turns against female candidates who everyone otherwise agrees are great at their jobs.
Clinton’s campaign has placed Obama in her most political role yet. She delivered the two most memorable speeches of the election cycle—her radical, moving address at the Democratic National Convention and her emotional repudiation of Trump’s boasts of sexual assault—and she has some of the best name recognition in a Democratic Party with no obvious leader. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the left-of-center electorate could mount a viable female presidential candidate who wasn’t a former first lady? Someone who actually wants the office, who doesn’t feel trapped in the White House, who’s been elected to some other political office, and who didn’t get her experience in the White House by virtue of marrying a man with political ambitions? To envision a woman as president, do people really need to see her in the White House for eight years first?
Pushing for a Michelle Obama campaign undersells the pipeline of female politicians who aren’t political spouses but who’d make great candidates and might have already set their sights on the presidency. These women need the support of Democratic leadership and the rank and file if they have any shot at running. People hoping for a female president and formidable opposition to Trump in 2020 should focus their attention on these women, not the first lady just because she’s awesome and she’s there.
Perhaps the most important reason to give up hope for a Michelle Obama candidacy is her potential for good works outside the White House. Without the pressures of her husband’s presidency, Obama can offend people who need to be offended, spend more time on the issues that matter to her, and continue inspiring Americans with her oratory and wisdom. Obama’s willingness to get her hands dirty in the political sandbox during Clinton’s campaign is a testament to her commitment to defeating evil. Her fans shouldn’t put the fetters of political office in her way.