There is widespread agreement that the position of first lady is both an anachronism and not something that can be done away with, because of the politics of the post and Americans' affection for it.
The reasons it's an anachronism are legion: As the current president has noted, the first lady has paid staff but is not paid herself, even when she devotes herself full-time to the most substantive sort of first ladying. She defaults into the post when her husband is elected, no matter who she is, but also has no real option to opt out of the role. The nation looks to her often to be a kind of national mater familias, if you will, focused on home-and-hearth issues—even if that's never been her real area of professional focus. Meanwhile, the conflict-of-interest and security issues involved in her continuing to work outside the White House can make maintaining her own independent career impossible.
There's also no question that Michelle Obama, who like her husband is an Ivy League-trained attorney, has performed the role with aplomb. She remains ridiculously popular, even as the president's approval has sunk in tandem with that of the Republicans in Congress he's been battling.
And yet some days it's hard not to look at her daily rounds and be reminded of the fundamental weirdness of the post she occupies. On Wednesday, Michelle Obama continued her long-standing efforts to encourage young Americans to get more exercise and eat more healthfully during an appearance with two Sesame Street characters, Elmo and Rosita. The occasion was the decision by the Sesame Workshop to allow produce companies to use the Sesame Street Muppets to market fruits and vegetables to children.
The pictures from Michelle Obama's photo op with the muppets were just as amazing as you'd imagine. And then there was their patter. What follows is only about the half of it:
MRS. OBAMA: Today, we have a very special surprise. I am thrilled to be joined by two furry friends from Sesame Street—(laughter)—who will be playing such an important role in this new effort. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Elmo and Rosita! (Applause.)
ELMO: Hello, Mrs. Obama! (Laughter.)
MRS. OBAMA: It's great to see you. Elmo, I love the tie. You dressed up for our press conference.
ROSITA: And I wore my pearls, my mom's pearls.
MRS. OBAMA: Oh, my God, they're beautiful.
ELMO: Can Elmo tell you a secret?
MRS. OBAMA: Yes, please.
ELMO: It's a clip-on. [tie]
MRS. OBAMA: It's a—oh, it's a clip-on.
ELMO: It's a clip-on.
MRS. OBAMA: So, how do you guys feel about getting kids pumped up and excited about eating healthy foods?
ELMO: Oh, well, it’s wonderful. Elmo loves healthy foods. Yes, Elmo thinks that fruits and vegetables are delicious.
ROSITA: Yes, sí, sí, sí, me, too. And you know what? They help us grow healthy and strong. Check out these muscles.
MRS. OBAMA: Let me see your muscle. Let me see it.
ELMO: Oh, that's a giant muscle, Rosita. (Laughter.)
MRS. OBAMA: It’s mighty, mighty. Oh, yes. Oh, Elmo, oh, your muscle, too, is so powerful.
ROSITA: Let me see your muscle. Oh. (Laughter.) Wow, strong.
ELMO: You know, Elmo eats lots of fruits and vegetables every day, Mrs. Obama.
MRS. OBAMA: That's very good.
ROSITA: Oh, that's wonderful, Elmo, because you know what?
ROSITA: Fruits and vegetables are anytime foods.
MRS. OBAMA: They are.
ROSITA: You know what that means?
ROSITA: They're so good for you that you can eat them every single day. (Laughter.)
MRS. OBAMA: All the time. All the time.
One thing's for sure: Given the way Big Bird became a 2012 campaign issue, the furry visitors don't seem like the sort who would have been invited to a Romney White House.