By Niall Stanage and Amie Parnes - 01/15/12 11:00 AM EST
Michelle Obama finally went there.
The first lady jumped head first into a discussion about racial issues.
She and her husband, the first African-American president, have mostly avoided addressing race except in oblique terms since reaching the White House.
Though she said she had not read the book — which was the target of a fierce White House pushback that was widely criticized as counter-productive — Obama took issue with the criticisms she perceived had been leveled against her.
“That’s been an image that people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced,” she told CBS’s Gayle King. “That I’m some angry black woman.”
Cue a mini-furor.
“I see Michelle Obama’s mad while saying she’s not,” said Rush Limbaugh. On one hand, it would be hard to argue that Obama was factually incorrect in what she said.
During the 2008 campaign, the conservative magazine National Review used a photograph of her in a scolding pose on its front cover above the headline “Mrs. Grievance”. The image seemed to many a harsh mischaracterization of black womanhood, making the then-candidate’s wife look like a Jim Crow era caricature.
Even so, the first lady’s decision to raise the angry black woman stereotype so explicitly caused some unease, even among observers who have no ax to grind.
“I have to admit I was a little surprised that she herself used the term 'angry black woman,’” said Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University who specializes in the study of first ladies.
A former aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed. “I don't think it was an ideal thing to say," the aide told The Hill.
“It definitely shocked me a little.”
The political downsides for both of the Obamas are clear enough. In using the words she did, she risked reactivating an entire narrative that had surrounded her in 2008. This idea that she was in some nebulous way radical and less-than-fully American had been a corrosive one, buttressed most powerfully by her now-infamous campaign trail statement that “for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country.”
That image was one that it took a great deal of time and work to undo — beginning, perhaps, with her ostentatiously patriotic address to the 2008 Democratic National Convention and continuing with her signature White House initiatives on the most uncontentious of issues: childhood obesity and the welfare of military families.
Last week’s remarks opened the door for ideological opponents of Obama to argue that she was up to her old antics. They needed no second invitation to march through it.
“She comes from a very angry, black nationalist background,” David Webb, a conservative radio talk show host and Tea Party activist who is himself African-American, told The Hill.
In Webb’s view, Obama had emerged from a family of modest means, had been afforded “enormous opportunities” and had gone on to the crowning heights of the White House. Given her official role, he said, she ought to realize that “you have to couch your views, because you’re representing the nation.”
Webb added that the danger in Obama’s remarks was their capacity to turn off even the ideologically uncommitted.
“It’s un-American,” he said, referring to her raising of racial issues. “The majority of Americans do not like that approach, this underhand way of doing things.”
Not so, countered an African-American commentator from the other side of the ideological divide, author Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “There is a political risk in that some people will say, ‘Well, she’s playing the race card,’” Hutchinson said. “But I think her view would be, ‘The race card has been played all along. I have to address this frontally.'”
Despite their political differences, both Hutchinson and Webb also agreed that there was an upside to Obama’s comments that much of the media coverage had missed: their capacity to further galvanize black support for her and the president.
“She could have said other things, but she said that,” Webb noted. “And the result of saying that is that many in the black community will defend her.”
Critics and some political strategists would argue that it is the reaction of skeptical non-black voters that the Obamas have to worry about. But the White House, at least officially, seemed unconcerned by the mini-controversy.
“I think she has been and will continue to be one of [the president’s] closest confidantes and his strongest surrogate,” one senior administration official said. “She has a really powerful voice on really compelling issues and is exceptionally talented and is someone people look up to. She's beloved.”
In one telling sign of how vexing issues of race and gender can be, especially when it comes to the occupants of the White House, officials at the Republican National Committee have avoided weighing in at all on the controversy — and declined to comment upon it when invited to do so by The Hill.
The last few days may have been stormy for the first lady. But some, even in unexpected quarters, argue that when the clouds clear, little damage will have been done.
“I think she'll be alright,” Anita McBride, who served as Laura Bush’s chief of staff, told The Hill. “When a book is out like this, there's going to be a flurry of attention. But all in all, the book was a positive piece about her evolution.
“I think she's earned a lot of good will in her time as first lady,” McBride said, before adding a distinctly double-edged compliment.
“She's the best thing they've got.”