The only thing keeping Michelle Obama out of elected office is Michelle Obama. Pundits have floated the idea of the first lady running for Senate from Illinois in 2016, but The Washington Examiner's Paul Bedard has another idea today. The 2016 are three years away, but "there's already buzz growing for the ultimate grrl power ticket: [Hillary] Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama." This item is, sadly, mostly evidence-free. Former Clinton spokeswoman Karen Finney and Democratic strategist Chris Lehane say it could be cool. "Hillary-Michelle 2016" bumper stickers have seen a 60 percent increase in sales since December. And as The Atlantic Wire has pointed out, the only argument against Obama running is that she doesn't want to; that disappears if she just... changes her mind. Sheryl Sandberg might have some advice for the first lady. In her controversial new book Lean In, Sandberg says women are underrepresented "in any industry, in any government" because of sexism, sure, but also because women can be their own worst enemies. They're not ambitious enough to overcome their self-doubt.
Maybe Obama's repulsed by all the dumb stuff you have to do to get elected. Maybe she's not ready for the responsibilities. Maybe she thinks she's not ready yet. But as Sandberg would say, that doesn't keep men from running. In an interview with CNN this week, Laura Bush — another first lady more popular than her husband — said that while she appreciate's Sandberg's message in Lean In, she's not going to take her advice. "I'm sorry that more women don't choose to run for office, but frankly I would never choose to run for office," Bush said. She was often the subject of senatorial speculation, too — in 2006, both she and President George W. Bush repeatedly told reporters she had zero intention of running for Senate from Texas. Troublingly, Bush suggested that same attitude was passed down to her daughters. "They know that there are a lot of ways you can be involved in policy and in public life without actually running for office," Bush said, noting they had "cousins — boys" who were interested in running for office.
If the Bush daughters don't feel they're qualified for office based on their last name, their boy cousins don't feel that way. Neither do the, like, 5 million Kennedys — on Wednesday, The New York Times says Ted Kennedy, Jr. is "finally" entering the family business. Pollster John Zogby tells the Examiner a Clinton-Obama ticket "is a tad too dynastic for American voters," but that hasn't killed the ambitions of Jeb Bush or his son. Anti-dynastic sentiment seem to apply more to women. Some advice from Sandberg might apply: "At a certain point, it's your ability to learn quickly and contribute quickly that matters," she says. "Women need to shift from thinking 'I’m not ready to do that' to thinking 'I want to do that — and I’ll learn by doing it.'"
Maybe it sounds condescending to suggest women who've lived in the White House need to take advice on ambition and bravery from a CEO. But all of these ex-first ladies would face one of the core problems Sandberg pinpoints — that when men are ambitious, they're more liked, and when women are ambitious, they're less liked. Each of these women are popular for their likeability. That will go away if they run for office. Sandberg says, "If you say anything that matters you're certainly not going to please everyone."
Sandberg told ABC News, "I hope Hillary Clinton runs for president." But with all the little signs Clinton's dropped about running in 2016, and all the instant-No. 1 bestselling sales around Lean In, perhaps Sandberg's advice might be best put to use elsewhere — in the East Wing of the White House. None of the major criticisms of Sandberg — that she's an elite disconnected from real women, that she dumps responsibility on women alone — apply in the case of Obama. Both Obama and Sandberg went to fancy schools. They both had powerful mentors. They're both rich! If Sandberg really wants to start a social movement, maybe she can start one of those "lean-in circles" focusing on a single "ambition gap": Michelle Obama's.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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