Has Michelle Obama’s N.H. speech set a new bar for influential first ladies?

In her speech, Michelle Obama called on the country to reassess its moral obligations when casting a vote in the upcoming presidential election.

Jim Cole/AP
First lady Michelle Obama speaks during a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016, in Manchester, N.H.

A day after several women came forward to accuse Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump of unwanted touching and groping, first lady Michelle Obama denounced the candidate’s “sexually predatory behavior” in a speech on Thursday in New Hampshire that many pundits are calling the second-best of this election season.

The first lady comes in second only to herself, after giving a similarly well-received speech at the Democratic National Convention in July in support of Democratic presidential candidate and former secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While first ladies have often campaigned for their husbands and given political speeches, the sway Mrs. Obama currently has with American voters and the elevated political platform on which she stands is an uncommon role for a presidential spouse in an election cycle.

"This is highly unusual to have the first family campaigning so strongly for their would-be successors," Katherine Jellison, the department of history chair at Ohio University and an expert on first ladies, tells the Christian Science Monitor. "It is unprecedented that a sitting first lady campaigning for anyone other than her husband would be giving two such high profile campaign speeches."

During her appearance on Thursday, Obama laid aside her usual campaign speech and spoke emotionally, as a concerned citizen and mother, calling on the country "to stand up and say enough is enough" in light of recently surfaced tapes from 2005 that recorded Mr. Trump boasting about his aggressive sexual behavior toward women.

"This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior and actually bragging about kissing and groping women using language so obscene that many of us were worried about our children hearing it when we turn on the TV," Obama said. "To dismiss this as everyday locker room talk is an insult to decent men everywhere."

It is Obama's relatability, particularly with young people, that first made her a desirable campaign speaker, says Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. 

"She was initially being deployed so that she could reach out to groups that Hillary Clinton might have had trouble reaching out to, in particular young people," Professor Gillespie tells the Monitor. "Michelle Obama comes off as natural and authentic and it is something that really appeals to young people in that particular demographic. That is a group she can relate to because she has children who are in that age bracket."

Not all scholars see her active campaign schedule in the past few months as a shift away from the traditional role of the first lady, however.

"It is not clear that the role of the first lady as 'campaigner in chief' has fundamentally changed. It is more of a matter of degree, or in this case, the media narrative of her command of the political stage at the moment," Allan Louden, a communication professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and an expert on political campaigns and debates, tells the Monitor in an email. "First ladies, certainly not all, have actively contributed to campaigns, as Hillary Clinton herself did in Bill’s first run [in 1992]."

The role of the first lady has changed over the course of 44 presidents, thanks to notable women such as Eleanor Roosevelt, who took a controversially outspoken stance on racial issues and held her own press conferences, and Lady Bird Johnson, who was the first to go on a campaign speaking tour without her husband. But the role is still one that has been frequently criticized for failing to keep up with the times and changing gender roles.

As Election Day draws closer, many have speculated how Bill Clinton could potentially change the position of "first gentleman": not only as a first man in that role, but also because he brings the experience of a former president.

"He will obviously, more so than any other first spouse, have a lot of hands-on real life political experience that has the potential to change the equation as well," Professor Jellison tells the Monitor. "But I think having a male spouse in the White House, regardless of who it was, has the potential to change that role in dramatic ways, because he won't have to play that role expected of first ladies."

While Obama tended to keep within the traditional roles of the first lady, advocating for causes often stereotyped as "feminine," such as healthy families and education for girls, a change may already be under way as she works to secure her and her husband's legacies in the White House.

"One of the strong speculations is that she might be laying the groundwork now, as she is about to no longer be first lady, for a political career of her own," Jellison says. "She has always denied that she has those ambitions ... but now we have precedent for that, don't we? A former first lady running for high political office herself is Mrs. Clinton – and there is a chance that Mrs. Obama will follow that lead down the line."

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