After Michelle Obama was caught on camera saying that her husband’s presidential bid had made her “really proud of my country for the first time in my adult lifetime,” we were assured by a source no less august than her own sainted husband that she had been misunderstood. Well, guess what? She wasn’t.
In a profile of Michelle Obama published in this week’s New Yorker, Lauren Collins catches her subject out in standard anti-American boilerplate in an appearance at a South Carolina church:
Obama begins with a broad assessment of life in America in 2008, and life is not good: we’re a divided country, we’re a country that is “just downright mean,” we are “guided by fear,” we’re a nation of cynics, sloths, and complacents. “We have become a nation of struggling folks who are barely making it every day,” she said, as heads bobbed in the pews. “Folks are just jammed up, and it’s gotten worse over my lifetime. And, doggone it, I’m young. Forty-four!”
From these bleak generalities, Obama moves into specific complaints. Used to be, she will say, that you could count on a decent education in the neighborhood. But now there are all these charter schools and magnet schools that you have to “finagle” to get into. (Obama herself attended a magnet school, but never mind.) Health care is out of reach (“Let me tell you, don’t get sick in America”), pensions are disappearing, college is too expensive, and even if you can figure out a way to go to college you won’t be able to recoup the cost of the degree in many of the professions for which you needed it in the first place. “You’re looking at a young couple that’s just a few years out of debt,” Obama said. “See, because, we went to those good schools, and we didn’t have trust funds.”
It is one thing to say that many people have it tough. Many people do have it tough. But for a 44 year-old woman to tell a black audience that things have “gotten worse during my lifetime” is astonishing. When Michelle Obama was born, racial intermarriage was against the law in at least two dozen states. Governors were standing in front of university and classroom doors, attempting to bar black children and teenagers from entering white-only institutions. The per capita income of African Americans has risen sixteen-fold over the past 40 years. Black homeownership has risen tenfold. The black poverty rate has declined from 75 percent to 25 percent.
Over the past 13 years, a breathtaking drop in the crime rate has made poor black neighborhoods safe and habitable in cities across the country for the first time in Michelle Obama’s lifetime — since the crime spiral that made them intolerable places to live began in the year of her birth, 1964. There are about 350 different categories in which life for black people in particular is so far superior to what it had been in her infancy — even as one has to acknowledge, in the areas of family breakdown in particular, ways in which it is at the very least no better than it was.
But all of this is to take Michelle Obama at her word that her problem with this country’s downright meanness has to do with the sufferings of those who better not get sick in America (because, you know, it’s so much better to get sick in another country). She seems at least as bitter, if not more so, about the fact that she and Barack had student loans to pay off and didn’t have a trust fund. So maybe what is bugging her is not that so many people are poor, but that her life in the Ivy Leagues and as a political wife has placed her in proximity to an entire class of people vastly more wealthy than she — from enormously rich classmates to colossally rich donors whose life of easy privilege apparently induces a degree of resentment in the striving daughter of a terrifically impressive working-class family that succeeded in sending its progeny from a four-room bungalow on the South Shore of Chicago through the nation’s finest schools and into marriage with the man who may prove to be the most notable African-American in this country’s history.
There used to be a term for what ails Michelle Obama: She has a chip on her shoulder. For her sake and for the country’s, she really ought to brush it off. “First Ladies,” writes Collins, “have traditionally gravitated toward happy topics like roadside flower beds, so it comes as a surprise that Obama’s speech is such an unremitting downer.” Now imagine eight years of it. In the relationship between America and Michelle Obama, America may not be not the “downright mean” one.