What? Michelle Obama isn't America's favorite first lady?

A recent poll asked Americans to pick their favorite first lady since 1974. It's a tie – one from a Republican and one from a Democratic administration. Hint: First names start with 'N' and 'H.'

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Barack Obama clasps the hand of former first lady Nancy Reagan after he signed the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act on June 2, 2009. Nancy Reagan tied with Hillary Clinton for America's favorite first lady.

Someone may want to tell Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as she globe-trots on behalf of President Obama’s foreign policy that Americans pick her as one of their favorite first ladies.

Secretary Clinton ties with Nancy Reagan in a new national poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion in New York that asks Americans to name their favorite first lady since 1974. Clinton and Mrs. Reagan finish tied for first place at 19 percent each, with current first lady Michelle Obama coming in second at 15 percent. Laura Bush follows with 12 percent.

“The irony of this is that Hillary and Nancy were the two first ladies of modern times to be a political liability for their husbands,” says Robert Watson, a scholar of US first ladies at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. “They are the only two first ladies who were not more popular than their husbands when they were in office.”

But first ladies Reagan and Clinton have both risen recently in the public’s estimation, he adds, first as their respective husbands have gained in public stature, but then in their own right.

She ought to be an advocate

The online survey of 1,016 Americans, conducted in early May, did not ask respondents to explain their choices. But an accompanying finding of the poll –that Americans want first ladies who are strong advocates for certain causes during their time in the White House – may help explain the poll’s results.

Nancy Reagan is remembered for the admonition to American kids to “Just say no” to drugs, while Clinton is associated with international women’s and girls’ issues (that is, once Americans get past the Clinton presidency’s health-care debacle).

The other first ladies since 1974 – Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, and Barbara Bush – all came in under 10 percent.

Despite taking the red second-place ribbon, Mrs. Obama clocks a favorable 60 percent approval rating among Americans over all.

Often in such ratings the current “office holder” takes top prize, aided by current events and name recognition. “In any poll of the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ presidents, for example, the recent ones always come in at the top of the list,” Professor Watson says.

Male voters shy away from Michelle

But the poll suggests that Obama may have been denied the blue first-place ribbon by American men, who give her considerably lower marks than women. While women overall give Obama the top prize at 20 percent, nearly a quarter (24 percent) of American men choose Nancy Reagan as their favorite first lady.

Obama, whose husband faced a deficit among male voters in the 2008 election, lags behind Reagan, Clinton, and Laura Bush with only 8 percent of the male vote.

“Part of the problem for Michelle Obama is that the folks who don’t like her husband really don’t like her husband, and so they are not about to like her, either,” he says. But Obama’s overall high marks reflect wide approval of how she has made herself “Mom in chief,” as Watson says.

“Michele Obama has found the balance that all first ladies struggle to find,” he says, noting that she makes clear she is a mother and her husband’s helpmeet first, even as she takes on popular issues like nutrition, child obesity, and improving services for military families.

Watson says that in the most recent poll he conducted among presidential scholars of first ladies, nearly a decade ago, Clinton did OK – coming in at number 10 – while Reagan was near the bottom (Mary Todd Lincoln came in dead last).

But both first ladies have risen in the public’s esteem since then, he says. Reagan – aka “Dragon Lady” during her White House years, Watson recalls – has a considerably different image now, fashioned by the way she stood by her ailing husband and protected him. “People now really see it as a love story,” Watson says.

And Clinton? Americans, who still associate first ladies with their husband’s presidencies, “are thinking the balanced budgets and years of relative peace during Bill Clinton look pretty good,” Watson says. “And then to many of them,” he adds, “Hillary has turned out to be a pretty solid secretary of State.”


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