Commentary: The Diplomacy of Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama

Commentary: The Diplomacy of Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama's trip to China, a visit steeped in diplomacy, is more than a routine spring break trip.

Published March 25, 2014

While President Obama is immersed in the thorny business of sorting out issues regarding matters in Russia, Ukraine and Crimea, First Lady Michelle Obama is involved in her own brand of diplomacy. It is not on the front pages in the way that issues in Eastern Europe have dominated the news. But hers is nonetheless a powerful and effective diplomacy.

The first lady is currently on a trip to China with her two daughters. It has been billed as a trip for her to learn more about education in the world’s most populous nation. But it is a trip, coming at spring break time, that serves as great a purpose for Chinese people to see the relaxed, intelligent wife of the president of the United States, not to mention the image of a distinguished African-American mother and her daughters in a variety of situations.

For example, she convened a roundtable discussion with eight Chinese educators, students and parents Sunday morning. It included an in-depth discussion of standardized testing, which is a rigid fixture in the educational system in China. Yet, the Chinese also got a chance to see her, while visiting the ancient city of Xi’an, not just sightseeing, but also jumping rope with local young women.

The fact is that, no matter where she travels in the country or in the world, Michelle Obama is always the object of great attention. Whether it is because of her work in support of military families, her White House garden, her playful appearances on television talk shows or in her fashion choices, she is always the focus of a wide audience.

Her stewardship as first lady has been a fascinating one to watch. The role of first lady has always been highly indistinct, subject to whatever notions the president’s wife had about the position. Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Rodham Clinton were activist first ladies, taking on highly public roles on matters of policy and being outspoken on a host of issues. Bess Truman and Edith Roosevelt found the spotlight to be almost painful and did very little beyond a few ceremonial functions.

Even before day one in the White House, Michelle Obama has had expectations and pressures on her that none of her predecessors could have possibly imagined. For many, she is the most significant symbol in history of what it means to be a Black woman, wife, mother and professional. Her choices are scrutinized in a manner that could only be described as unprecedented.

She has had a highly nuanced line to walk as the first African-American woman to be in this position. Yet, she has more than risen to the challenge, eclipsing her husband in popularity and setting a standard that will endure through generations.  

She has focused on important issues and taken on weighty assignments, as she did when she spoke at the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton after the teenager’s death by gunfire in Chicago. She has been an admirable champion of health and nutrition, especially among young people. At the same time, she has been a delight to watch on talk shows like The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where she strikes the image of the Everymom who is never too serious to refrain from amusing banter or even a dance move.

As she travels through China, the mammoth population will have the opportunity to see a distinct image of what the wife of the leader of a huge nation can be. It is clear that they have found it both fascinating and refreshing.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Feng Li/Getty Images)

Written by Jonathan P. Hicks


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