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Michelle Obama: Committed to Women’s Work

“She ought to be under consideration for a seat on the Supreme Court, not recruited as a presenter in some Hollywood movie contest,” sniffed Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy in his February 26 column. Mrs. Obama is not the first White House official to have a presence at the Oscars. Ronald Reagan and Laura Bush appeared in taped segments for the 1981 and 2002 Academy Awards shows, respectively. President Roosevelt spoke at the Oscars via radio in 1941. But none of these occurrences elicited the negative backlash that has been generated in the wake of Mrs. Obama’s Oscars appearance, and we as a culture should ask ourselves why. It is undeniable that a spotlight of unprecedented intensity shines on our current first lady, and many wondered just what she was doing there. “Having fun,” concluded Washington Post national staff writer Krissah Thompson. I disagree. She was at work.

Michelle Obama used the Oscars to promote her “Joining Forces” initiative, just as Nancy Reagan appeared on Diff’rent Strokes, a sitcom that ran from 1978 to 1985, to plug her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. Commentators on the right sneered and accused Mrs. Obama of using the military as “props,” but there is no American institution more defined by public display than the military, with its parades, uniforms, and tightly choreographed appearances. Similarly, Mrs. Obama, like the actors she was addressing that night, is on stage all the time. This continuous scrutiny is a consequence of being not only first lady but also the first African American first lady. What she has done quite artfully is finesse the inevitable attention in order to mount two very successful campaigns.

5740874097_a293e09777First Lady Michelle Obama participates in the “Pit Crew Challenge” during an event with the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition on the South Lawn of the White House, May 9, 2011. The first lady visited seven activity stations during the event, which helped promote both the “Let’s Move!” and “Joining Forces” initiatives. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

6857507922_937cc857f0_zFirst Lady Michelle Obama and Ellen DeGeneres dance during a taping of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” marking the second anniversary of the “Let’s Move!” initiative, in Burbank, California, Feb. 1, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

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