Faced with public demands for transparency and responsiveness, rigid institutions, and a myriad of obstacles to influencing public opinion, presidents of the United States are not generally in the habit of ignoring opportunities to promote their policy agendas. Especially when they face political tumult or scandal, administrations deploy every instrument of soft power at their disposal, every media manipulation tactic, every surrogate willing to appear on national television and vouch for them.
The most effective surrogates of all, as my research consistently shows, are first ladies of the United States. Like past first ladies, Melania TrumpMelania TrumpFormer aide sees Melania Trump as 'the doomed French queen': book If another 9/11 happened in a divided 2021, could national unity be achieved again? Former Trump aide Stephanie Grisham planning book: report MORE is more popular than other members of the Trump administration, there is intense public interest in her, she garners positive media attention, and she succeeds at remaining above the partisan fray.
In most years of the past three presidential administrations, first ladies have given more public speeches than vice presidents. Melania Trump’s activity has diverged from that of past first ladies not only in frequency but in substance. As my research shows, the public role of first lady of the United States has become a highly strategic one, aimed almost entirely at improving public opinion of presidents and their policy agendas.
First ladies accomplish this in a variety of ways, the most notable of which is by promoting their own projects, initiatives intended to positively frame controversial presidential policies under the guise of a valence issue. Although in some respects this practice has been in place for decades — recall, for example, Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, which was launched as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was formulated — it has only become formalized in the most recent presidential administrations.
Laura Bush’s Afghan Women’s Project, for example, proved to be a very effective frame for the Bush administration’s foreign policy agenda. The first lady took over the president’s weekly radio address after the invasion of Afghanistan, constantly reinforcing the humanitarian objectives of the war, and the treatment of women and children under Taliban rule. Survey experiments in my book indicate that these efforts improved public opinion of the war on terror.
Michelle Obama further revolutionized this strategy, using alternative media appearances, rather than traditional outlets, to publicize her signature initiatives and amass positive press coverage for the administration. Her spots on Nashville and “Top Chef” coincided with sky-high ratings. Her carpool karaoke session with James Corden has been viewed on YouTube over 61 million times.
With the recent hire of a policy director, and the formal announcement of her “Be Best” platform in a highly anticipated Rose Garden event last week, for a moment, Melania Trump appeared to be following suit. But her platform, which broadly aims to help children through well-being, encouraging positivity on social media, and fighting opioid abuse, fulfills few of the criteria for effective spouse-centered projects. Not only does the platform fall short of reinforcing the president’s policy agenda, it has spawned charges of hypocrisy and resurrected accusations of plagiarism.
It is hard to believe the East Wing did not see these blows coming miles away. More surprising still is that despite these uphill battles, Melania Trump chose to keep cyberbullying in her platform. A much easier option would be to focus solely on the opioid crisis, which the Trump administration has already prioritized, or even to choose an issue that serves to positively frame the president’s controversial immigration policies, like working to stop human trafficking.
But Melania Trump seems determined to work on the issues that she cares about, regardless of the political costs or benefits for her husband and his administration. That lack of strategy within the White House stands in stark contrast to what we have observed in recent administrations.
Lauren A. Wright, Ph.D., is a lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University and the author of “On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today.”