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Column: Criticism of Michelle Obama Changes But Is No Less Bogus

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

The “feminist nightmare” is recurring.

Unbowed by Politico labeling her with this epithet a couple of weeks ago, Michelle Obama continues to do what her critics regard as frightening behaviors. Last week, she assaulted independent women by showing off the White House Christmas decorations.

“Our goal is for every room and every tree to tell a story,” she explained to an audience of military families in the East Room, where her two-tone gray dress matched the silver ornaments on the trees.

She spoke of Christmas trees made from stacks of books (“they’re very cool!”) and described the “first dog display” featuring likenesses of Bo and Sunny. “This year they actually move,” she said. “We’re stepping up in the world of Bo-and-Sunny honoring. And these are just a few of this year’s highlights!”

From there, the first lady of the United States ushered children into the State Dining Room, where she helped them fold paper flowers, glue reindeer puppets, and make ornaments from cake icing and candy. Under the gaze of Abraham Lincoln from an oil painting — and about 50 journalists from behind a rope — she walked the real Bo and Sunny through the room.

“Sunny girl, calm down!” Obama said after one of the dogs knocked over a toddler. Obama crouched down to hug several of her visitors, popped a gum drop in her mouth, and told them: “I’ve got to go to work.”

But what the first lady did with the kids is her work — and she’s doing it well.

The chattering class is conducting one of its periodic evaluations of Michelle Obama, and is, as usual, finding her wanting. Before, she was too outspoken; now, too demure. A month ago, The New York Times reported that she has been “derided by critics who hoped she would use her historic position to move more deeply into policy.” Then came Politico’s headline calling her a feminist nightmare.

The author, Michelle Cottle, wrote that Obama’s “Ivy League degrees, career success and general aura as an ass-kicking, do-it-all superwoman had some women fantasizing that she would, if not find a clever way to revive the 2-for-1 model pitched by the Clintons so long ago, at least lean in and speak out on a variety of tough issues. It was not to be.”

I’ve dabbled in FLOTUS-crit over the last five years. In 2009, I suggested Mrs. Obama’s elitism was showing when she snarled Washington traffic so that she could buy some certified-organic Tuscan kale at a farmers’ market. But the feminist-nightmare attack strikes me as unfair.

In part, that’s because modern feminism is about women choosing what they want. If a hard-charging role model is sought, she can be found in Hillary Clinton, Kathleen Sebelius, Nancy Pelosi, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan or many others.

But the real flaw in the nightmare critique is that the first lady’s traditional take on the role has nothing to do with gender, or race, or anything at all about Michelle Obama. It’s about politics. She simply has no practical alternative.

Recall the criticism that first greeted Obama on the national stage: unsubstantiated accusations about her use of the word “whitey”; her comment that “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country”; her college thesis about “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community”; even her fist-bump on the stage with her husband. She was quickly muzzled, or muzzled herself, to prevent damage to her husband’s candidacy. She hasn’t wavered since from her self-assigned role as mom in chief.

Were she to follow her critics’ advice now that her husband is safely re-elected, and install herself as a lightning rod atop the White House, the resulting hullaballoo would sap whatever focus remains on the Obama policy agenda. Even Hillary Clinton’s health care debacle wouldn’t serve as an analogue; in 1994 there wasn’t a large chunk of the opposition denying the president’s legitimacy, blaming him for things predating his presidency (such as the response to Hurricane Katrina) and angling to impeach him over routine policy disputes.

And so Michelle Obama goes about her job. She talks about the “gingerbread house that weighs about 300 pounds — it’s pretty big!” She explains that the Blue Room is “one of my favorite rooms.” She squeezes frosting for the kids (“You can eat that!”), rolls up a little girl’s sleeves and uses a dish towel to clean icing from another tot’s dress.

Some dismiss that as conventional. But it’s practical, and smart. Michelle Obama knows better than to martyr herself, and the Obama presidency, for somebody else’s definition of feminism.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.