First lady Michelle Obama has figuratively evicted her 74-year-old mother from the White House in an apparent effort to boost her appeal to middle-class voters.
The eviction notice came April 30 when the first lady told fellow Democrats at a fundraiser that she shared their values. “My family, we lived in a little bitty apartment on the South Side of Chicago over my aunt’s house [and] my mom still lives in that house to this day.”
However, the first lady’s mother, Marian Robinson, has lived in the White House since March 2009, when Essence Magazine announced her move from Chicago to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“She will stay as long as her son-in-law and daughter want her to stay there,” Angela Burt-Murray, the editor of Essence Magazine, said in an April 2009 “Today” show interview.
White House officials have largely kept Robinson out of sight, and she makes relatively few public appearances. One recent exception came on April 9, when she publicly read “The Rainbow Fish” at the 2012 White House Easter Egg Roll.
The first lady’s effort to distance herself from her mother’s White House stay comes as both she and President Barack Obama try to stress their middle-class roots, amid a stalled economy and high unemployment.
The cost of visible first family trips — to Spain, Hawaii, Martha’s Vineyard and other locations — has spurred some level of resentment among Americans, whose income has stalled since 2008, even as their costs for gasoline, health care and education have risen.
The first lady’s 2010 trip to Spain cost taxpayers $487,000, partly because her large group increased security costs. In 2011, the first lady’s trip to southern Africa cost another $424,142. The cost estimates were uncovered by Judicial Watch, a D.C.-based watchdog group.
The voters “view everything through their own personal situation and if they can’t afford to do it, they can’t enjoy it, they don’t like Obama using their tax dollars to benefit himself,” according to John McLaughlin, a pollster for Resurgent Republican, a GOP-aligned research group. “In this case, they see him as out of touch… he’s basically doing what they can’t do on their tax dollars,” added the GOP pollster, who talked with swing-voters in Pittsburgh and Cleveland in April and March.
One of those voters, he said, complained that “Michelle Obama spends $1 million to take the kids to Hawaii,” while another complained that “President Obama was the only president to take so many trips.”
However, both Obama and the first lady have tried to portray themselves as solidly middle-class, despite their Ivy League degrees.
“By now, you know my story,” she told the audience at the Arizona fundraiser. “My father was a blue collar worker at the city water plant, and he worked there his entire life… neither of my parents had the chance to go to college [but] they poured everything they had into us, because they wanted something more for me and my brother,” she declared.
“And truly, more than anything else, the reason why we’re here is because that’s what’s at stake — that fundamental promise that no matter who you are, no matter how you started out, if you work hard you can build a decent life for yourself, but more importantly, an even better life for your kids,” she said.
The first lady’s father was a prominent member of the local Democratic Party, and she attended Princeton University and Harvard University.
The president has been making a similar pitch at his events, even though his grandparents sent him to a private school in Hawaii before he was admitted to Columbia University in 1981 and to Harvard in 1988, following an undistinguished two years in Occidental College.
“My mom was a single mom — my dad wasn’t around — and she raised two kids by herself with some help from my grandparents because she was able to get grants and work her way through school,” Obama told students at a campaign-style April 25 event in Iowa. “I’m only here today, and Michelle is only where she is today, because scholarships and student loans gave us a shot at a great education.”
At a Jan. 11 event in the White House, Obama cited his mother as the source of his values. “All across this country, I meet folks who grew up with a faith that in America, hard work paid off and responsibility was rewarded, and anybody could make it if they tried … Those are the values that my grandparents and my mother taught me,” he said.
The family pitch is also used by President Obama in some fundraisers. “It is wonderful to be back in the Pacific Northwest,” Obama told wealthy donors at a Feb. 17 Seattle fundraiser. “I was reminding some folks who may not know, I’ve got Seattle roots — my mother went to Puget Sound High School… went to Mercer Island High School… that’s why I love this place, every time I come up.”
However, the president has sometimes hinted at his family’s high spending, which is supported largely by royalties from his book sales.
“If we’re willing to do something in a balanced way — making some tough choices in terms of spending cuts, but also raising some revenue from folks who’ve done very well, even in a tough economy — then we can get control of our debt,” he said in a campaign-style August 2011 event in Minnesota.
“I don’t know about how things work in your house, but in my house if I said, you know, Michelle, honey, we got to cut back, so we’re going to have you stop shopping completely — you can’t buy shoes, you can’t buy dresses — but I’m keeping my golf clubs — (laughter) — you know, that wouldn’t go over so well.”