Will Melania Trump change the role of first lady?

The future first lady says she will stay in New York with her young son, at least for the first months of her husband's presidency.

Evan Vucci/AP
President-elect Donald Trump (l.) arrives to speak at an election night rally with his son Barron and wife Melania, in New York, Nov. 8.

Future first lady Melania Trump has put her foot down – she’s not going to be moving to the White House, until her son Barron finishes school this year, at the very earliest.

Ms. Trump’s decision has sparked controversy across the country and has won her both allies and enemies. Some praise her priorities as a parent while others call the office of first lady a bloated enterprise. But for many others, a first lady anywhere but the White House is hardly a first lady at all.

Above all, however, some commentators predict that Ms. Trump’s decision will set the tone for her husband’s presidency, as both President-elect Donald Trump and the future first lady show a disinclination to stay in Washington long term. But after an election season in which Mr. Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C., is abandoning the White House really a bad decision?

"[The first lady] gives a kind of personal side to the White House. It might even be considered vital to the public's perception of the president," White House Historical Association historian William Seale told the BBC. "[The president] is an administrator and a he is a symbol and I think the first lady's role is very important to that symbol part."

The history of the office is dotted with first ladies of varying degrees of interest in their husband’s position as chief American executive.

Throughout the first century and a half of United States history, many first ladies served their country as household managers and personal advisors to their husbands rather than public figures. Some, like President Grover Cleveland’s young wife Florence, were outright disinterested in the office. Others gave counsel, or like President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife Edith, took the reins of government from behind the scenes while their husbands were incapacitated.

When President Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, came to Washington, things changed. The presidential spouse became an important position. Eleanor Roosevelt used it to take to the streets, fields, coal mines, and mills of America, to host a radio show, and to advocate for the common man. Michelle Obama has used it to fight childhood obesity and advocate for women.

Critics of the modern role of the presidential spouse say that the office is a bloated establishment, as Politico reports. Ms. Obama’s staff alone, for example, costs $1.5 million to maintain. Rosalynn Carter’s staff may have numbered up to 21 individuals.

These critics say that Ms. Trump’s decision to stay in New York (at least for the time being) could be a boon for society.  Cutting the role of the first lady down to a manageable size, they suggest, may go down in history as one of Mr. Trump’s cost-saving, corruption-eliminating measures.

“The office of the first spouse is a rancid barrel of presidential pork that has outlived its usefulness. Melania Trump would do us all a great service if she told her husband that she has better plans for the next four years – resuming her modeling career or raising her son Barron, for example – than hectoring us about the menace of cyberbullying, her self-choice topic or serving a ceremonial function at media events,” writes Jack Shafer for Politico.

“Abolish the office of the first spouse! Free Melania Trump!”

Not everyone is excited about Ms. Trump’s decision, however. Many Twitter users have shared their opinions on the matter, saying that the first lady’s choice to reside in Washington is typically a symbol of her devotion (and her husband’s devotion) to the American people.

"First Family resides in White House as a symbol of our country to us and the world," tweeted Pamela Benbow. "Melania Trump's decision is appalling."

Remaining in New York is also tremendously expensive, torpedoing arguments that Ms. Trump could be saving the country money. Trump Tower is famously difficult to secure and has been causing problems for the Secret Service ever since the election.

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