One president at a time, thanks.
Why is Michelle Obama giving a speech on CNN today? She wasn’t elected President and she has not been appointed to any position that entails making speeches. In this instance, Ms. Obama spoke about education, during a trip (purportedly) to thank employees at the Department of Education for their service.
Here is what the AP reports:
“So many of you have been here struggling and pushing for decades and Barack and I want to say ‘thank you’ for what you’ve done and ‘thank you’ for what you will continue to do,” she told 350 employees who filled a department auditorium to capacity. “But we also know that there are new faces coming into this work and we want to welcome you and thank you for the hard work that you’re going to put in.” Mrs. Obama said the department will “be at the forefront of many of the things that we have to do in this administration” before she ticked off such agenda items as renovating and modernizing schools, increasing Pell Grants and providing tuition tax credits to college students.
Who is the “we” who will be doing “things” in “this administration”? Ms. Obama is not, thus far, part of the current administration. If the President wants to make her part of it, there are appointment procedures that need to be followed.
There is a popular notion that the first lady (or first gentleman of the future) can and should make use of her (or his) “platform” to speak out on issues of personal interest. Why? More importantly, why do we listen? Sure, speeches by first spouses might raise awareness about some problem or issue and, possibly, prod otherwise reluctant people who can deliver to do something. However, first spouses are not typically the most knowledgeable experts available to CNN to discuss an issue of public importance. (Michele Obama was a hospital lawyer.) First spouses also cannot deliver anything. (They never say: “I’m going to Congress today to demand additional funds to protect spotted owls.” Or “I’m going to make the President release those men held in Guantanamo.” Or “I’ll call the Prime Minister as soon as I get home and tell him he needs to end the ban on American beef imports.”) So the speeches are mostly just talk. We listen, I think, because first spouses are celebrities and we care what celebrities say (however banal). And we listen to these particular celebrities because we hope that what they say will shed light on what the Administration is up to. But that hardly ever happens. Not every first spouse will have a delivery as pinched as Laura Bush did, but even the boldest first spouse will not reveal anything about the government that the government doesn’t want disclosed. So listening for insight into what the President is thinking or planning is normally an exercise in disappointment. It is also bad for democracy. If we want to know what the government is doing, we should find out from those in charge.