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First Lady’s Second Term

First lady Michelle Obama speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013,  in celebration of the Black History Month, welcoming middle and high school students from the District of Columbia area and New Orleans taking part in an interactive student workshop with the cast and crew of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild.   (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

First lady Michelle Obama speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, in celebration of the Black History Month, welcoming middle and high school students from the District of Columbia area and New Orleans taking part in an interactive student workshop with the cast and crew of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Nothing wrong with fighting obesity. Michelle Obama’s arms alone — as showcased by all those sleeveless dresses — make her a plausible role model for exercise and eating right. And her perspective is crucial because — as a Washington Post review of her garden book, American Grown, noted last summer — she actually remembers what life used to be like before the obesity epidemic, when moms cooked dinner every night, and you had to eat your vegetables, and you walked to school, and rode your bike for fun instead of being car pooled everywhere, or sitting home with your video games. I especially like the way her vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House promulgates the spirit of DIY to a new audience, showing kids from D.C. public schools (and, by extension, everybody else) how they can grow some of their own food, instead of buying it bagged in cellophane or wrapped in plastic.

But I’d like to see her broaden her scope, and take a shot at improving not just kids’ nutrition, but their lives and their futures and their sense of their own powers.

In this column a couple of weeks ago, I wondered whether the Obamas’ success story — she grew up in blue-collar Chicago and went to Princeton and Harvard Law; he was raised by a single mother and his grandparents and made it to Columbia and Harvard Law; now they’re both in the White House — gets so much attention because it would be so hard to repeat in the current economy.

When she spoke in Philadelphia during the campaign last year, Michelle Obama said that, when you make that journey from striving to success, you “don’t slam the door behind you.” You hold it open for the next person.

But how, exactly?

She may not be able to do much about some of the macroeconomics that make it so much harder for poor people to move up into the middle class today — skyrocketing income inequality, rising college tuition, persistent unemployment, falling incomes for all but the top 1 percent, and the aftereffects of the popped real estate bubble and subsequent economic crash.

But she has precisely the right experience and perspective to hearten and help people striving today. She’s been where they’re coming from, and now she’s where they’d like to be. Clearly, she must know something about how it’s done. (And so must her mother, who made sure she ate all those vegetables and did all the homework, and could also play a valuable role in the enterprise I have in mind.) I see it as sort of a cross between the Girl Scouts and the Farm Security Administration, which I wrote about last week, plus a little Martha Stewart, a little Oprah, a little local public library, a little night school, a little “Hints From Heloise,” a little This Old House, a little Consumer Reports, a little Complete Idiot’s Guide, with emphasis on developing skills that will make a person’s life better and build a sense of competence. What the White House vegetable garden has done to raise the profile and heighten the appeal of growing and eating fresh food, this program would do for a whole raft of other skills that would help people build the lives and create the lifestyles they want — clothing repair, spot removal, lamp rewiring, parenting, fixing wobbly chair legs with glue and bungee cords, writing resumes, managing family relationships, doing your taxes, finding what you’re looking for on the Internet, whatever. Plus a side of cheerleading that highlights the struggles and grit and heroic persistence of the working poor, much as the work of FSA photographers built support for farm families dispossessed by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

One occupational hazard of living in a consumer economy is constant exposure to the advertising and marketing that businesses must do to sell expensive things to rich people — so we’re bombarded by endless images of cool, thin, beautiful people luxuriating in the exquisite satisfaction of driving Range Rovers or wearing Rolexes or seeing the world through Gucci sunglasses. Companies wouldn’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars on this propaganda each year if it didn’t have some effect. And one effect it has is to conflate success and satisfaction with owning expensive stuff.

People laboring under this misapprehension are likely to feel dispirited if they can’t afford the stuff: How can they ever feel successful if they can’t afford oversized automobiles and $500 sunglasses? And this is true even though on some level they know perfectly well that when somebody buys a pair of overpriced sunglasses, it’s not the buyer but the seller — the managers and shareholders of the luxury conglomerate that made them — who scores a success.

Everybody knows it’s competence and skill and understanding that creates success (and self-satisfaction, too). But it’s easy to forget that when there’s so much propaganda for the expensive trappings of success, and so little for the skills that create it. If the first lady could begin to redress that imbalance, we might get more strivers through the door of success, and we’d all be better off.

Write to Patricia McLaughlin in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, Mo. 64106, or patsy.mcl@verizon.net.