By Cody Perkins
When Convention season rolls around, both parties tend to break out the big guns for televised speeches meant to energize their bases and outline their plans for the country. At the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 7, 2012, Michelle Obama delivered just such a speech to the Convention in support of Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency in 2012. The speech, which consisted largely of anecdotes about the President, as well touching on the First Lady’s own upbringing and experiences with the Presidency, seemed to focus more on giving voters a sense of President Obama as a person, a husband and a father rather than as a public official. However, the speech touched on political issues as well. She spoke on issues ranging from health care reform to tax cuts for the middle class, from student loans to the bailout of the auto industry. In a similar speech in Tampa, Florida on August 29, 2012, Ann Romney (wife of Republican candidate for the presidency Mitt Romney) gave a speech to the Republican National Convention, in which she spoke about her family, her relationship with Romney, and some of the issues that have plagued her husband’s campaign, such as his involvement with Bain Capital and his policies regarding women. Both speeches were passionate and heartfelt, and at the end of each many in the audience were shown with tears in their eyes.
This “spousal speech” has become a tradition at political conventions where most nationally broadcasted speeches are otherwise reserved for top party officials, and apparently with good reason: both Michelle Obama’s and Ann Romney’s speeches have sparked their respective political bases in ways that other aspects of the Conventions have not. Videos of both speeches have proliferated on social and news sites online, and a crop of articles about both women continue to be published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other major news sources. Even before the Conventions, both women held significant sway in the electoral atmosphere, and a recent Gallup poll indicates that Michelle Obama enjoys over 10% more support from the American public than the President himself. Alhough the First Lady is not an elected official, it seems clear that the public has and will continue to take candidates’ spouses into consideration when casting their votes.
The obvious question arising from Michelle Obama’s and Ann Romney’s incredible impact on their husbands’ respective campaigns is whether or not the public should be voting based on a public figure who is not elected, has no official policy-making power, and has no constitutionally-guaranteed role in running the country. Though personable, neither Michelle Obama nor Ann Romney will be making the final decisions about taxes, health care or jobs. The fact, then, that the First Lady can potentially “win the presidency” for her spouse (as some argue Dolley Madison did for James Madison as early as 1809) could be troubling for the idea that a democratically-elected President is in office because the public supports his plan for the country. How much of a “mandate” to act on campaign promises would the President have if a large portion of the voting public elected him, not just because of his policies, but also because of his wife?
However, although the First Lady is not an elected official, is not mentioned in the Constitution and is granted no official authority by virtue of being married to the President of the United States, she does in fact wield a significant amount of power and can have a significant impact upon the Administration while in power. At the most basic level, the First Lady has an office, a budget, and a staff with which to facilitate the running of the White House and acts as a public figure representing the Office of the President to the outside world, including meeting diplomats and heads of state and helping to shape the U.S.’s image around the globe. However, she often takes on policy-related responsibilities as well, spearheading projects deemed important to society and the President. While some of these projects are largely apolitical, such as Barbara Bush’s campaign to promote literacy and Michelle Obama’s campaign to fight childhood obesity, some seem to be direct extensions of the President’s policy initiatives, as when Hilary Clinton led a special task force on health care and Rosalynn Carter sat in on Cabinet meetings and served as the chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. During John F. Kennedy’s presidency, it was Jackie Kennedy who hired the first Press Secretary in the White House, and during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency it was his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, who did much of the traveling and speechmaking in light of her husband’s disability. And perhaps most importantly and most overlooked, the First Lady has been and can be an incredibly influential (though unofficial) advisor to the President, having an untold amount of influence on the policies championed and executed by the Executive Branch.
Given this significant though unofficial power, it seems both fitting and necessary that the spouses of presidential candidates make themselves known to the public through speeches and public appearances, and that the public take them into consideration when casting their votes. If there are no direct consequences for the First Lady’s actions (though the President, at least, will likely feel public pressure as a result), her role will remain a nebulous, unaccountable anomaly in our system of government. For voters to treat the First Lady as a “silent third member” of the ticket, given her potential impact in the running of the country, ensures that her actions are not without public support or accountability.