Man, how miserable is Michelle Obama?
About 2½ years into her ceremonial stint as first lady, Mrs. Obama seems to have had quite enough of the gig. More to the point, she doesn’t seem to have ever warmed to the second-fiddle slot as other first ladies before her did. And even more than that, she doesn’t seem all that happy with the man she married 19 years ago.
A look at just this past month is illuminating. On Aug. 9, the first lady sneaked out of Washington and flew aboard a government plane to Corvallis, Ore. On board, dozens of staffers, Secret Service agents, Mrs. Obama’s mother and one of the Obamas’ daughters (we never did find out who). No husband. Her office never announced the trip; the news was broken by Oregon’s Register-Guard newspaper.
“She’s on a private, family trip to meet with her brother and his family,” aide Semonti Stephens said.
But security for the first lady locked down a ritzy country club neighborhood. “We couldn’t go out and get our mail without first telling them our names,” a neighbor told the Register-Guard.
Of course, the optics were terrible. Just as the markets were melting down — and millions of Americans settled in to enjoy a “staycation” — the first lady was off on vacation, again. Why wouldn’t her brother — even his whole family — just slip into Washington for a couple nights at the White House during the summer break?
But things got really weird this month when the first family went on yet another vacation, this time a 10-day break on Martha’s Vineyard. Mrs. Obama flew up to the island four hours before her husband. Four hours! The cost for the early flight was astronomical, prompting the question: Why on Earth do it?
Then, we see the pictures. First, a shot of an unsmiling Michelle in the presidential limousine. Next to her, in the shadows, a grim husband. Unseen in the photo are the daughters, who sit across from her. But Michelle is tuned out: She’s plugged into an iPod, neither willing nor able to listen to anyone.
Then, another photo. Mrs. Obama was going to stay on Martha’s Vineyard when her husband returned Saturday ahead of the hurricane, but White House aides quickly nixed the idea. Upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, about to descend the stairs on her private 747, she could not have looked more grim. Her husband — the president — didn’t look too happy, either.
No, there’s something going on there. How else to explain all those vacations away from President Obama — to Florida, California, South Africa, Latin America, Colorado, Spain? (That last trip was also a “mother-daughter” jaunt, although along for the ride were 40 “family” friends and a security squad of 75 agents.) How else to explain her decision not to accompany her husband to Chicago the day before his 50th birthday, when the first couple could have spent the night in their real home?
One thought: Nothing can match the insufferability of a president. All day long, people gasping at your very entrance into a room. Helicopters from your front yard to massive jets to motorcades to speech sites where people literally pass out from the excitement of seeing you.
And wives of presidents get the brunt of it. To them, their husbands are just the guys their mothers told them wouldn’t amount to much, but who somehow did. And the wives, like no one else, are the only ones who can keep presidents in check.
Like Laura Bush did with her husband, who she had known for years, all the way back to when he was a drunk frat boy palling around with pro ballplayers. When President George W. got all worked up one time and vowed to get Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” the first lady knocked him down a peg — in public. “Bushie, are you gonna git ‘em?” she mocked as she upbraided him for the undiplomatic outburst.
But perhaps Barack Obama is past being reined in by his wife. And maybe she’s past trying — or caring.
When Mrs. Obama hung out with French first lady Carla Bruni, she apparently let loose her real feeling about her lot, at least according to two journalists. Asked during a trip to the White House how she liked her role as first lady, Mrs. Obama’s response was, “Don’t ask! It’s hell. I can’t stand it!”
Mrs. Obama’s people quickly fired back, saying she said no such thing.
So maybe that’s not it. But has anyone recently asked her, “How do you like your role as the president’s wife?”
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com