12:29 AM EST, February 1, 2013
With the inauguration over, the second term for this historic White House figure — viewed by many through the prism of race and seen as a benchmark for the country's prickly race relations — bears watching.
Yes, Michelle Obama's second act as first lady should be quite interesting.
From Jan. 20, 2009, the day when she was officially anointed Mom-in-Chief, I thought it would be her — and not her husband — who was destined to be the Pennsylvania Avenue litmus test on race in America.
The country's evolution on race would be defined not by how it viewed its affable, light-skinned, bi-racial president, but in how it treated his eloquent, darker-skinned wife.
America had never dealt with a black woman who would carry the clout, cachet and international platform of its first lady. In addition to her rich chocolate skin, she is tall, authoritative and thought-provoking. This corporate lawyer and community leader is Harvard- and Princeton-educated; this corporate lawyer and community leader is someone who maintains her street cred from her days growing up in Chicago's tough South Side.
Michelle Obama's gift is that she can more than hold her own intellectually with the Washington elite and still be a card-carrying sistah, who doesn't forget her roots.
Certain segments of America, mostly conservatives, were not quite sure how to deal with a black woman who did not fit conventional stereotypes. Instead of embracing it, they tried to demonize her.
The satirical front page image on the cover of the July 2008 New Yorker magazine said what others were whispering. You remember? Barack Obama was portrayed as a turban- and sandal-wearing Muslim. Michelle was cast as a machine gun-toting, Angela Davis-Afro wearing, fist-bumping radical. As offensive as the cover was — it was published four months before the November 2008 election — the absurdity of the lampoon was actually quite comical.
As Obama grew more comfortable as America's first lady, the country grew more comfortable with her. After all, she epitomizes what many women in America struggle with every day — life balance. She had given up her promising career to support her husband's ambitions and moved her mom in to support her in raising two young and precocious daughters.
There was also the obligation as first lady to develop an agenda to champion. The roles of first ladies is ever-changing. Eleanor Roosevelt took pride in being an equal rights activist. Fashion was Jackie Kennedy's forte. Hillary Clinton was a policy person, though she failed miserably in getting a health care law passed. Laura Bush didn't veer far from her librarian roots and focused on literacy.
Michelle Obama's platform has been narrow — family (raising awareness about the needs of military families, and children in general) and fitness (championing awareness about childhood obesity). In recent months, she has unwittingly become a Jackie O-like fashionista. Whether it's new bangs, a low-cut dress or bulging biceps from her morning workout, the Twitter world buzzes with all things Michelle.
If there is ever to be a meaningful conversation about race in America, it's now Michelle — not Barack — who has the platform to catapult such a dialogue.
Forbes Magazine in 2010 named her one of the 100 most powerful women in the country. Her approval ratings are now 73 percent; higher than her husband's, and up from 66 percent several months ago. Michelle Obama's influence is such that many were disappointed that she did not speak out more publicly about the massacre in Sandy Hook. They wanted to hear her perspective and comforting words, as much as they did her husband's.
But like her husband, Michelle Obama has been reticent to talk publicly and candidly about race, its continuing influence and the bigotry that still undermines America's potential.
It's apparently seen as a political liability. But that doesn't mean that the first black family has not made a profound statement about race just by being themselves. Americans of all stripes have to appreciate a two-parent home with a loyal wife, nuturing mom, a busy but involved dad and a place where education, family values and respect of others is taught.
As America's matriarch, Michelle Obama is leading by example. And what that is doing to racial stereotypes is resounding.
Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.ctnow.com/stan and Saturdays, 6:30 a.m., on FOX CT).
Copyright © 2013, The Hartford Courant