Is it ever a good idea to go after the President’s wife?

Going after someone’s wife, always a tricky prospect.  That’s why I’m more than somewhat divided over gay protesters’ admittedly-bold move in heckling First Lady Michelle Obama at a private event in DC last night.

The protesters, from the gay advocacy group Get Equal, were hoping to increase pressure on the Obama administration to enact an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against gay and trans people.  While it’s a worthy goal, I’m not sure it was a wise move.

First, a quick review of what happened last night from Chris Johnson at the Washington Blade:

According to Sturtz, the exchange began when Michelle Obama began talking about children without delving too much into LGBT issues beforehand. Sturtz said she shouted out to the first lady something about the importance of LGBT children, and Michelle Obama wasn’t happy.
“She cut me off immediately and leaned over podium, sort of her put her big hand towards me and said something to the effect of ‘You don’t do that to me’ or ‘I don’t do that,'” Sturtz said. “Then I made a comment that I’m interested in making sure that we have employment protections, and I’m not going to be quiet any longer.”
According to Sturtz, things became even more testy as Michelle Obama left the podium to talk to the activist face to face.
“She came down from the podium and got into my face — probably within three inches of my face,” Sturtz said. “She basically took the microphone down, and she said to me, ‘I don’t do this, and if you want the microphone, it’s either I have the microphone or you have the microphone. I said, ‘I’ll take the microphone.’ And she said, ‘If you take the microphone, then I’m leaving.'”

Targeting family is always risky

Targeting family is tough.  You don’t go after underage kids, period.  That’s why Rush Limbaugh’s abominable attacks on Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton and Malia Obama, and the NRA dragging the Obama kids into the gun debate, met with such derision over the years.  It takes a small man to attack a child.Michelle-Obama-holiday-party

But what about wives?  While wives are at least adults, and they’ve arguably signed up for more than the children, taking on a man’s wife because of your gripe with him is likely to not go over well with most people.  (I doubt going after a politician’s husband would go over too well either, but the spectacle of attacking a man’s wife resonates particularly hard in our society.)

And in fact, the protest has not been met with rave reviews online.  Here’s a sampling of the comments from last night’s post about the protest:

It was the wrong time and the wrong place. Mrs. Obama was on a mission to part fools from their money.

*** Obama’s main thrust in her speech was to urge donors to stay engaged and back the president’s agenda, even though there’s no presidential election coming up. ***

They can heckle BHO all they please. Going after the wife, even when she’s being obviously political like here, is self-defeating.

And this:

Bad form, this does not help our cause.

And this:

you dont heckle at a fund raiser… period. This was totally out of place. This heckler was an invited guest and she decided to make the event about herself. Clinton gave us DOMA and he gets an award. Obama is breaking down some very stubborn traditional walls and his wife gets heckled.

Some, however, defended the move:

If you are a member of an oppressed class, you demand your rights from those who hold power any time and any place they appear.

There is NO time and place for government discrimination against minorities, and there is no time or place where speaking out against that oppression TO those who continue it is inappropriate.

And this:

ANY place Barack Obama or Michelle Obama or anyone else who enforces a system of discrimination appear is the RIGHT time and place for someone who is subject to that discrimination to make their voice heard.

This woman who shouted is a lesbian and therefore does not have full and equal citizenship rights – and she is supposed to hold back her complaint against those who perpetuate her own oppression because her oppressors are holding a photo op?

You have a strange view of what polite behavior.

And this:

I’ll be polite here and just ask honestly, what other ways do we have left other than to protest directly to the people capable of delivering the justice we demand? People who previously said they would stand up for us, but have failed.

Sometimes you just have to risk the disapproval of the “don’t make waves” crowd. We learned it with Vietnam. We learned it again with AIDS/HIV. We learned it yet again with DADT.

Michelle Obama was at a political event trying to raise money and support for her husband’s policies and agenda. Speaking out and saying that President Obama’s agenda needs to include the very thing he promised repeatedly on the 2008 campaign trail is fair game. Just because Michelle is well-liked or just because she’s a woman or just because she’s FLOTUS only by accident of marriage doesn’t let her off the hook, not when she herself is engaging in political activism.

One person even suggested that it was sexist to suggest that the First Lady was somehow off-limits:

You literally just said that the President’s spouse should be able to make political appearances at fundraisers and be immune from criticism?

Screw your patriarchal and sexist “First Lady” crap. She’s an accomplished individual, she has a name, and it’s insulting to suggest that she needs coddling because of (apparently) either her gender or her personal relationship with the President. The only other possibility is that you’re suggesting that in our government there should be not employees, but persons exalted and given special deference and perhaps reverence?

We leftists don’t need to emulate the right’s need to be starry-eyed dreamers admiring and defending our fantasy heroes.

President-and-mrs-ObamaA number of those siding with the protester noted that this was not a private dinner that some mom was having with her kids.  This was a political fundraiser in which Mrs. Obama was representing her husband, and the Democratic party, and seeking funds for the party’s election prospects.  She was not acting in her capacity as a private citizen.

Still, good luck explaining that when all people are focusing on is the image of you yelling at a guy’s wife.

And that’s the problem with targeting the President’s wife.  Here’s one reader’s take, that I agree with completely:

There still is the issue of optics. Michelle Obama is a popular political figure, and by shouting her down, it will potentially make a lot of people less sympathetic to the cause the protesters are trying to convey. Actions like these are more self-defeating than anything.

I’m not sure Mrs. Obama handled the protest terribly well either

That’s not to say that Mrs. Obama handled the episode well.  I don’t think she did.  The NYT’s Nicholas Kristoff commented on this last night on Twitter, and was excoriated for it – but that doesn’t change the fact that he was right:

nick-kristoff-michelle-obama-protester michel-obama-gay-protesters

It’s possible to think that the protest was a bad idea, but to also think that Mrs. Obama’s reaction wasn’t helpful either.  (When confronted by the protester Mrs. Obama threatened to leave.)

When you’re the First Lady you are a public figure, and, as Mrs. Obama learned all too early in the race for the presidency, her actions are going to be scrutinized and they are going to reflect on her husband whether she (or we) likes it or not.

And it doesn’t matter how much sympathy anyone has for her – I adore the woman, and find her much more personally appealing than her husband – that doesn’t change the rules of politics and the rules of PR.  When confronted by protesters you have to be careful how much ire you show in response.  And I think she showed too much.

Still, the protest was a bad idea

Michelle-Obama-holidayBut that doesn’t change the fact that I think the protest came off badly.  Not only did Mrs. Obama respond a bit too angrily, but so did the protester.  I think that if you’re ever going to target a spouse, you need so gingerly.  Not because they’re frail wallflowers, but because the public sees them that way, and the public doesn’t like you getting in their face, and the public’s opinion matters in a PR stunt.

I might have recommended a protest that in some way urged Mrs. Obama to help us get the executive order issued.  E.g., No more in-your-face than perhaps holding up friendly signs across the street from the house where the event was held.  But I think heckling her, which is how this was perceived, is counterproductive with much of the public.  And it probably won’t go over too well with the President either.

And that last point is important.  The goal of this kind of protest is to get the attention of the President.  And while I supported the earlier protests against the President over the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, protests that included shouting him down at multiple west coast fundraisers, I think this is different.

I think when you target a man’s wife, rather than the man himself, you risk him digging in his heels and not giving you what you want, just out of spite.  And yes, he gets mad when you go after him personally, like our community did on DADT, but that was different.  People take on an entirely other, and irrational, form of obstinance when you go after their family.  And the goal of the protest, after all, is to get what we want.  I don’t think that’s more likely to happen as a result of last night.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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