Mrs Obama made a great job of being first spouse. But why the need to play consort? | Catherine Bennett

Whatever its dubious benefits, the public role of political partner is oppressive – and redundant

Reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming made me think – intermittently – about Philip May’s bins. As in: was that the last time we heard from him? And if so, is that solitary TV appearance, along with some tweedy churchgoing and posing with walking poles – to be his legacy as prime minister’s consort? Is that – with time plainly running out – it?

Failing some last-minute contributions, May has proved, from an entertainment, news and thus satirical point of view, a dismayingly unco-operative dud of a first spouse. And it’s not as if anyone anticipated amusement up there with Brigitte Macron’s state visit showstoppers, or Samantha Cameron in the fish shop or, earlier, Cherie Blair, in the days when she sized-up property with a conman and shared details of her fertility highs and lows.

Philip May walks behind his wife in a churchyard
The UK’s first spouse, Philip May, left, is mostly photographed accompanying his wife to church. Photograph: David Hartley/Rex/Shutterstock

But there was a reasonable expectation, given recent consort tradition, of Philip’s fashion fails, Philip’s halting confessions about juggling home and career and, at the very least, Philip’s revelations about the big heart pulsing within the Maybot. Think of Sarah Brown’s speech to the effect that Gordon Brown’s rages belied a secret tenderness. “The first time I met him I was struck that someone so intense and so intelligent could be so gentle, could ask so many questions, could really care.”

For his successors, however, Invisible Philip has been good enough to prove that the public routine devised for first spouses is not merely optional but redundant. Somehow, visiting first helpmeets have managed to go shopping without him. Incoming spouses will not – unless they choose to – need to agonise, like Mrs Brown and Mrs Blair, about how best to deploy this uncovenanted influence. “I was beginning to realise,” Blair writes in Speaking for Myself, of an outing in Tokyo, “that I didn’t simply have to be an appendage on these trips. I was starting to see how I could create a role that would be of real benefit.”

That Blair never quite demonstrated what, beyond top memoir material, these real benefits might be does not mean, as Obama has established, that the consort role cannot be used to good effect. Had she not embraced the position of Flotus, with performative and formal duties that far exceed the UK equivalent’s, we should not, for instance, have her new book, in which the stalling of her own promising career, so that her husband’s could flourish, surely confirms that whatever its sporadic benefits, first ladyship is all wrong. So long, anyway, as it’s unpaid and conceived as principally a range of retro hostess skills, including doting helpmeet, faultless dresser and wise matron, regardless of whether the incumbent is the lawyer Obama who dreams up the Let’s Move! campaign, or a trophy wife who wears, for a visit to children in a refugee camp, a parka reading: “I really don’t care. Do u?”

Not that Obama betrays any hint, in a brilliant and disarming memoir, of resenting the presidential demands on her, in particular, or the affront, in principle, to new-generation consorts required to enact highly costumed, practically Sealed Knot revivals of the marital rituals that once oppressed their great-grandmothers.

Had the first black woman in the White House objected to any of the above, the consequences – when you think that Hillary Clinton is still haunted by her loose talk about cookies in 1992 – can be readily imagined. Even without the cultural and political onus on Obama to perform the premier cookie-dough artiste’s job better than it had ever been done before, her natural approach to any task – “I’ll show you” – ensured that it was she who conferred dignity on the ludicrous position of presidential consort, as opposed to the other way around.

But what first ladies can never say is implicit. Once Obama has detailed, in Becoming, her search, as a highly qualified young woman, for a job that is fulfilling as opposed to high status, along with her intensifying “distaste” for politics and this premonitory entry, before marriage, in her diary – “I don’t believe the pursuit of one person’s dreams should come at the expense of the couple” – the absurdity of her then being asked, at precisely the moment she’s found the perfect job, to volunteer as full-time assistant to the president/the nation, is no more forgivable for being dictated by an impeccably progressive agenda.

Angela Merkel and her husband, Joachim Sauer, arrive at a concert
Angela Merkel’s husband, Joachim Sauer, generally keeps a low profile Photograph: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

Angela Merkel, after all, is progressive and the quantum chemist Joachim Sauer, far from hosting banquets or planting organic turnips, has spent much of the past 13 years, for all we know, quietly painting his nails.

Much, maybe too much, has been made of Obama’s incredible relatability. In wry passages about squeezing shopping into lunch breaks, or birthday parties into campaign trails, and her quest for tiny but perfect woolly hats for her daughters’ stadium appearance, she generates warm familiarity – but many more, delivered in the same engaging style, only underline her exceptionalism.

During a difficult period after Senator Obama goes to Washington, Michelle, in Chicago, has a three- and a six-year-old, a demanding full-time job and is missing exercise. “My fix for this,” she writes, “came in the form of my ever-giving mother, who still worked full time but volunteered to start coming over to our house at 4:45 in the mornings so that I could run out to Cornell’s [her trainer’s] house and join a girlfriend for a 5:00 am workout and then be home by 6:30 to get the girls up and ready for their days.” Anyone?

One reward for this staggering self-control was, shortly, the advice from a senator’s wife, that she exchange paid work for Washington, where the ladies’ luncheon clubs awaited her. Michelle refused. “Truly, I didn’t want to drop a thing.” That she subsequently dropped everything has been thoroughly vindicated. But no one else should have to do it.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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Catherine Bennett

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