Evaluations of Michelle Obama as first lady: the role of racial resentment.

Author:Knuckey, Jonathan
Position:Report
 
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At the height of the race for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama made the following comment: "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country ... not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change" (quoted in Cooper 2008). This comment was clearly made in the context of the level of engagement exhibited, especially among younger voters, in the Obama candidacy. However, it was viewed by others as evidence of a lack of patriotism, and even anti-Americanism. For example, conservative commentator William Kristol wrote that "Michelle Obama's adult life goes back to the mid-1980s. Can it really be the case that nothing the U.S. achieved since then has made her proud?" (Kristol 2008). At the same time, Cindy McCain, wife of the presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, remarked: "I am proud of my country. I don't know about you, if you heard those words earlier--I am very proud of my country" (quoted in Cooper 2008). The remarks aimed at questioning the patriotism of Michelle Obama--which she was compelled to reaffirm in a later interview--were perhaps of the type that might have been directed at presidential candidates rather than their spouses. In many respects such criticism provided a harbinger of the nature of some of the criticism directed toward the First Lady during the Obama presidency.

As First Lady, Michelle Obama has engaged in the type of nonpartisan advocacy of valence issues commonly associated with the "traditional" role of the First Lady that continues to comport to the role expected among the public (Burrell 1999; Parry-Giles and Blair 2002; Stokes 2005). However, the reaction to Michelle Obama has often appeared to be more motivated by partisanship. For example, in February 2010, the First Lady championed "Let's Move," an initiative to address poor eating habits and obesity among school children. However, conservative critics were quick to denounce this as the intrusion of big government. Former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, was a notable critic. After personally bringing cookies to a school in Pennsylvania, Palin gave a speech, noting, "Who should be deciding what I eat? Should it be government or should it be parents? It should be the parents" (quoted in Wing 2010). In February 2013, the First Lady made a satellite appearance from the White House at the Academy Awards to announce "Argo" as winner of the Best Picture award. This prompted criticism from some conservatives about the appropriateness of a First Lady appearing at the Academy Awards (Cirrili 2013), despite the fact that Laura Bush had also done so in 2002. A trip to China in March 2014 by Michelle Obama to promote cultural exchange programs also drew criticism as being a tax-funded vacation, given that the First Lady was also accompanied by her two daughters and her mother (Joachim 2014). When Michelle Obama did talk candidly about race and overcoming racial prejudice, such as at a commencement ceremony address at Tuskegee University in May 2015, some critics accused her of sounding "angry" and playing the "race card" (Capehart 2015).

As the first African American First Lady, the role of race and racial attitudes in shaping opinions about Michelle Obama cannot be ignored. Using data from the American National Election Studies (ANES), (1) this article examines whether racial attitudes, specifically racial resentment (Kinder and Sanders 1996; Kinder and Sears 1981; Sears and Kinder 1971), explain evaluations of Michelle Obama. More generally, the article seeks to make a contribution to understanding the dynamics underlying approval of First Ladies, a topic that Burrell, Elder, and Frederick (2011) and Sulfaro (2007) have suggested requires greater scholarly attention. Of course, the well-documented partisan polarization in American politics (see, e.g., Abramowitz 2010; Abramowitz and Saunders 2008; Black and Black 2007; Layman and Carsey 2002) has likely been a contributing factor in explaining the increasingly partisan evaluations of the spouses of presidents and presidential candidates (Burrell, Elder, and Frederick 2011; Sulfaro 2007).

However, this article posits that racial resentment also needs to be taken into consideration when explaining attitudes toward the first African American First Lady, even after controlling for other explanatory variables. Thus, this article also seeks to contribute to the literature on the salience of racial attitudes and its role in shaping political behavior during the Obama presidency. Far from heralding a "postracial" environment, racial attitudes--whether measured as racial resentment, old-fashioned prejudicial stereotyping or ethnocentrism--were found to be a strong determinant of vote choice in the 2008 presidential election (Aistrup 2011; Aistrup, Kisangani, and Piri 2010; Kam and Kinder 2012; Kinder and Dale-Riddle 2012; Knuckey 2011; Payne et al. 2010; Piston 2010; Tesler and Sears 2010). Indeed, racial backlash among whites likely cost Obama a popular vote landslide (Lewis-Beck, Tien, and Nadeau 2010). Racial attitudes also played a major role in fueling the rise of the "Tea Party" movement (Abramowitz 2011; Jacobson 2011; Maxwell and Parent 2013; Tope, Pickett, and Chiricos 2015; Williamson, Skocpol, and Coggin 2011). Moreover, racial attitudes appear to be partially responsible for driving opposition to health care reform in the first term of the Obama administration (Henderson and Hillygus 2011; Knowles, Lowery, and Schaumberg 2010; Maxwell and Shields 2014; Tesler 2012). Conspiracy theories about the citizenship and religion of President Obama have also been motivated by racial attitudes (Maxwell, Dowe, and Shields 2013; Pasek et al. 2015). In the 2012 presidential campaign, racially coded rhetoric was evident by some of the candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 as well as their surrogates (see, e.g., Knuckey and Kim 2015), and once again racial attitudes were seen to have the potential to cost Obama white support (Tien, Nadeau, and LewisBeck 2012).

The underlying assumption here is that the mere presence of an African American president was responsible for the increase in the salience and potency of racial attitudes being at the fore during President Obama's first term in office and during his reelection campaign. This article examines whether the same argument can be applied to explaining variation in affective evaluations of the second most visible African American political figure in American politics since 2008: the First Lady, Michelle Obama. Was the mere presence of an African American First Lady--as opposed to any policy agenda she advocated--responsible for activating racial resentment as a determinant of her evaluations?

Public Opinion toward First Ladies

The importance of the First Lady in contemporary American politics was best captured in the review essay on the state of scholarship on First Ladies by Watson (2003, 424), who noted, "The First Ladyship is an institution in that the far majority of presidents have served with their wife beside them, presidential spouses are well-known public figures, and the First Ladyship has become an office--albeit one of extraconstitutional design--complete with office space, staff, and budget." Certainly there is little doubt as to the political influence of First Ladies on their spouses. However, as Watson further noted, the study of First Ladies prior to the 1980s largely proceeded from a biographical and largely anecdotal basis, rather than an emphasis on theory building. Instead he observes that most books on First Ladies "were little more than social accounts of the weddings, children, and dresses of First Ladies, and frequently these works were romanticized to the point of fiction" (Watson 2003, 427).

While Watson (2003) was correct in observing that scholarship on First Ladies was still developing, one productive line of inquiry has emerged for those studying the approval and affective evaluations of First Ladies (or potential First Ladies). For example, beginning with the 1992 ANES, feeling thermometer items were included for the first time to measure affect toward spouses of the presidential nominees. An analysis by Mughan and Burden (1995) found that affective evaluations of both Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton had independent effects on vote choice above and beyond other explanatory variables. Most crucially, these findings did not appear to be the result of idiosyncratic factors that were germane to the 1992 election, such as Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton representing very different approaches to the role of the First Lady--and likely the role of women in politics and society more generally--or with 1992 being heralded as the "Year of the Woman." Indeed, in a similar analysis of vote choice in the following election, Mughan and Burden (1998) again found that the affect toward the candidates' wives had an independent effect on vote choice (see also Tien, Checchia, and Miller 1999).

These findings from 1992 and 1996 are suggestive of candidates' spouses and First Ladies playing a far greater electoral role in presidential elections as campaign surrogates. Indeed, perhaps only a role that is eclipsed by the vice presidential nominee. Both the 1992 and 1996 campaigns may have also been watersheds with respect to the role played by the spouse of the presidential candidate, with an expectation being that candidates' spouses will play an active role on the campaign trail. For example, in the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, the absence of Judith Dean from the campaign trail led to numerous questions being directed to Howard Dean, the early front-runner for the Democratic party nomination, concerning her absence. Perhaps the best indicator of the salience of the presidential nominee's spouse in the...

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