How are the initiatives of a first lady born? There are no playbooks suggesting how many initiatives to conceive or what those initiatives should be. Finding the right issues for a first lady’s policy initiative is something of a balancing act; they are also hostesses and important political surrogates for their spouses. Becoming a policy advocate is not their only responsibility. Sometimes it takes time for a first lady to become accustomed to the job and begin to see the impact she can have and to understand how to do it.
That’s where her staff can be helpful, providing the policy backup to find ways to effect change through programs and events that raise awareness and build support for the things she cares about most. In December of 2012, after President Barack Obama was re-elected, Michelle Obama — who launched Let’s Move in 2010, and Joining Forces in 2011 — convened a workshop with all of her staff to establish additional initiatives for the next four years. Staffers met in the evenings and on Saturdays and presented recommendations, discussed ideas and received advice and counsel from past social secretaries, former chiefs of staff for past first ladies and various members of previous administrations. It’s not an exact science, but the guidance was extremely helpful: Don’t have too many initiatives as they will dilute each other. Make it easy to explain with an uncomplicated title. And marketing is key. For Mrs. Obama, it was also imperative that her initiatives from the first term continued into the second term and she did an amazing balancing act of providing each relatively equal time and attention.
Laura Bush once said: “The role of a first lady is whatever she wants it to be.” Despite the lack of an official government role, first ladies have a bully pulpit to support and illuminate worthy issues, and they’ve been doing it since Dolley Madison’s day. First ladies are in a unique position to transcend politics as well. Often the causes to which they are devoted represent universal maxims that all sides of the aisle agree on. These are moments that remind us of our unity as a country rather than our divisions.
Though first ladies have numerous initiatives, some stand out in history. Jaqueline Kennedy advocated for the arts and the restoration of the White House. The White House furnishings became part of the Smithsonian Institution, ending a long tradition of presidents and their families taking favorite pieces of furniture when they departed.
It’s not mere window dressing: Lady Bird Johnson’s championing of beautifying America’s countryside and highways began simply enough, but over decades of dedicated effort she came to be acknowledged as one of the earliest proponents of the environmental movement in America. A first lady’s choices can have positive and far-reaching consequences.
Pat Nixon advocated volunteerism. Rosalyn Carter advocated that mental illness was not shameful and helped lessen the stigma of mental health care. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign promoted drug education and the danger of youth drug abuse to drugs. Family literacy was Barbara Bush’s focus. Hillary Clinton is famous for her advocacy of healthcare, one of the most controversial of any initiatives of the first lady.
Their influence can extend far beyond the United States, as Laura Bush’s did in supporting important health initiatives such as the Bush Administration’s PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a 5-year, $15 billion global program to address the AIDS crisis in Africa that was the largest health initiative in history. Another example is Michelle Obama’s “Let Girls Learn,” a government-wide initiative to help girls around the world go to school.
When first ladies shine a light on the things they care about, lives can be changed: Until Betty Ford spoke openly about her battle with breast cancer, it was not a topic for polite conversation. Women flocked to their doctors for breast exams after she courageously spoke out about her own experience, saving untold lives.
Perhaps most importantly, Betty Ford’s name is now synonymous with addiction treatment. After her stint in the White House, Ford was open and honest about her battle with alcoholism and depression and her experience in treatment. Her seizing a teachable moment became a seminal moment in America’s battle with addiction and she even opened her own treatment center in 1982, which lives on today as the ubiquitous Betty Ford/Hazleden treatment center. Though not an initiative while she was first lady, it deserves discussion because the impact Ford was able to make was a direct result of her prior position as First Lady. Michelle Obama and Laura Bush are relatively young women with many years ahead to achieve additional impact.
In the Rose Garden earlier this week, First Lady Melania Trump unveiled “Be Best”, an initiative tackling opioid abuse, the pressures of social media and mental health issues among youth. It is a very ambitious program. With the help of a loyal East Wing staff, which is rumored to be a much congenial and enjoyable than their West Wing counterpart, Melania Trump may turn out to be the Trump to watch.
Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard are former social secretaries under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively. You can buy their new book, “Treating People Well” at Amazon.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.