Last night, Ann Romney finally became the focal point of the presidential race. She defended herself on Twitter against consultant Hilary Rosen’s charge that she doesn’t understand women struggling in this economy since she “has actually never worked a day in her life.” Rosen only succeeded in making Ann an even greater asset than she already was in what is, in part, a contest between the current First Lady and the woman who would succeed her.
Presidential candidates’ spouses play a particular, carefully minded campaign role. The candidates are the men (mostly) we may or may not agree with. Their wives are supposed to be the people we can’t argue with. These women have often happened upon the things that come to define them in the culture: in 2008, it was Michelle Obama’s inexpensive clothes, picked up off the rack at H&M like anyone else.
Now Ann Romney has found her definition. Until last night, it wasn’t entirely clear what Romney’s wife, a warm, appealing public presence, would stand for. Now we know: it’s motherhood. And her power was immediately clear: Michelle Obama, the campaign, and the Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee all rushed to defend her from Rosen, a lobbyist and Democratic operative, amplifying her message being that taking care of five boys instead of having a job does not make her worthy of attack.
And since 2008, Michelle Obama’s own image has evolved. She’s worn everything from H&M to Jason Wu to Forever 21, making herself the champion of a young generation of designers and the kids who follow them in “Vogue.”
Aiding Ann’s down-to-earth mom-ness is the simple fact that there’s no room for Ann to take a seat next to Michelle Obama at the fashion industry’s dinner table, which is something the vast majority of people can’t relate to. Ann the stay-at-home mom (who has survived breast cancer and has M.S.) provides a counterpoint to the glamour Michelle has acquired with the first lady title. A better cause could not have chosen her.
Ann is hardly the first in her position to make being a mom a part of her public persona, but she has been given a rare opportunity to seriously capitalize on it with the kind of clarity and power that’s more commonly the product of a long and painstaking public relations campaign. Michelle Obama has defined herself deliberately through maternal causes like healthy eating in schools and helping veterans’ families. But she has crafted that image as a kid-loving woman over time through idyllic, effortless photo ops of her gardening with children, reading books at schools, playing soccer in gym classes, and hugging Taylor Swift on stage at the Kids’ Choice Awards.
Michelle Obama’s causes and her earnest promotion of them are not the only things that made so many Americans fall in love with her. Michelle, unlike, Ann, floats effortlessly through the glamorous world of “Vogue” and “Glamour” magazine covers. She fundraises for her husband at the homes of left-wing fashion industry titans like Anna Wintour and Donna Karan. And the fashion industry benefits in return since she really does look great in the things that she wears. Of all the people labels can dress these days, she’s arguably the most sought-after in the world.
And you wonder, just like Ann has become a mouthpiece for stay at home moms everywhere, how much Michelle chose that place for herself. The New York Times’s Jodi Kantor writes that expensive designer clothing provides her a personal outlet from the stresses of the White House; political advisors would prefer she’d stuck to the J. Crew. Michelle became a sensation on the campaign trail when she was photographed at functions wearing H&M dresses. Blogs like Perez Hilton demonstrated a voracious appetite for those down-to-earth moments, and Michelle continues delivering them. And while it seems normal this far into her husband’s presidency that a First Lady would wear the same things we all do — J. Crew, H&M, and the like — prior to her, exorbitantly priced Oscar de la Renta clothes were pretty much the first lady go-to.
But while fashion has made Michlle Obama a particular kind of icon, it’s also brought some of the fiercest debates about her: should she have worn a non-American designer to the Chinese state dinner? Did you notice that she went out in earrings that cost $11,000 or carrying a tiny clutch purse that cost $1,500? Her penchant for designer things, which she wears much more often than non-designer things, is sometimes used by the right to portray her as out of touch.
And of course the inevitable debate emerges: why must we talk about her clothes when she has real causes to fight for? That’s one question Ann probably won’t have to worry about.