IF MICHELLE Obama isn't careful, she could get the Hillary Clinton treatment, circa 1992.
The spouse of then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton was featured in a "Nightline" segment that began with these words from host Ted Koppel: "Meet the new political wife. She has a career, she has opinions. A partner in every way. . . . And now, she's become controversial."
Right now, Barack Obama's wife is as much a media favorite as her husband, the presidential candidate. Her predebate advice to Obama - "Feel, don't think" - is portrayed as political genius. A Newsweek cover story describes a smart, well-grounded woman, with an inspirational life story who is "neither Stepford booster nor surrogate campaign manager. " Her independence and outspokenness are viewed as virtues, at least for now.
That could change, as Republicans search for any antidote to Obama fever.
The GOP typically attacks Democrats for their alleged lack of patriotism; Michelle Obama handed them an early opportunity with this snippet from the campaign trail: "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country."
Conservative critics were quick to take advantage.
"Obama's statement was met with warm applause from other Barack supporters who have apparently also been devoid of pride in their country for their adult lifetimes," noted Michelle Malkin. "Or maybe it was just a Pavlovian response to the word 'change.' What a sad, empty, narcissistic, ungrateful, unthinking lot." Rush Limbaugh asked: "Did she not feel proud about the Berlin Wall coming down? Has she not felt proud about the way we came together after 9/11?"
In 1992, Hillary Clinton's role as future first lady became the subject of unflattering attention, especially after Bill Clinton said, "I always say that my slogan might well be, 'Buy one, get one free.' "
The spotlight became harsher as campaign controversies embroiled them both. Explaining why her law firm received Arkansas state business while Bill Clinton was governor, Hillary Clinton said, "You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life." At her husband's side while he addressed infidelity accusations, she declared, "I'm not some Tammy Wynette standing by my man."
The Obama campaign is scandal-free and no one talks about a co-presidency. Michelle Obama, the mother of two young daughters, plays a more traditional role, with modern career woman panache. She calls her husband "brilliant" and argues, "We need someone to challenge us to be a better nation . . . and the only person who can do this is Barack Obama."
A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, Michelle Obama resigned a boardroom post a year ago after speculation that her husband's political success boosted her own career. When recently asked what her "first lady platform" would be, Obama replied, according to The Wall Street Journal: "To make sure my kids have their heads on straight. We can talk about the high-falutin' notion of a first spouse platform, but here I am, a woman professional who has to work on top of my first job as a mother."
Bill Clinton may have a tough time trying to define his role as "first laddie," but Michelle Obama also walks a delicate line. Smart, tough political wives like Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, and Laura Bush are acceptable; in public, they are adjuncts to the husband elected by the voters, even as they wield power behind the scenes. As first lady, Hillary Clinton openly crossed the line into politics and policy, often to harsh reviews.
Michelle Obama can expect more scrutiny from the right, from the sentiments expressed in her senior thesis - "I will always be a black first and a student second" - to her push for more African-American faculty and students at Harvard Law School. So far, she isn't intimidated.
Last week, she said that when rivals use her husband's full name - Barack Hussein Obama - they are throwing "the obvious, ultimate fear bomb. . . . When all else fails, be afraid of his name."
If voters continue to embrace such candor from a prospective first lady, it will be another sign the country is ready for change. Ironically, Michelle Obama may owe a shift in attitude partly to her husband's rival. Hillary Clinton pushed the boundaries of the role of a first lady, generating controversy that dogs her presidential bid today. But, she also changed expectations.
Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is email@example.com.