Monday, January 5, 2009

First Lady...for a paycheck?

There was an intriguing article in The Washington Post about a week and a half ago which addressed the ever-problematic question about whether Michelle Obama is "opting out" by accepting her role as "mom-in-chief" for the next four (or hopefully eight) years. The author, Lauren Stiller Rikleen, proposed that we shouldn't consider the job of First Lady a step down; rather, it should be a paid position, with a specific job description. Rikleen writes:

"The very debate about whether Michelle Obama is sacrificing her career shows that we must develop a proper perspective about the position of first lady, including a job description for the spouse of the president. Surely the person in one of the most visible roles on the planet deserves a proper title and salary to go along with the intense demands of this most nebulous position, which is, in essence, a job."

I see several potential issues with this argument; the most problematic is the fact that the only qualification for this amorphous position is to be the spouse of the president-elect, but I do think that Rikleen raises an interesting question in that we don't give the First Lady enough credit for performing an incredibly difficult role.

What do you think? Should Michelle Obama be given a paycheck, just like her husband?


At January 5, 2009 at 1:33 PM , Blogger Roscoe said...

I mean, she can have all the credit she wants, but I didn't vote her into anything. I mean, there are a lot of people I can trust and respect, but absolutely think are crazy for picking the spouse they did (Not that I think Michelle Obama was crazy when she wrote her thesis or anything...).

It seems like an interesting idea, but one that should remain in coffee table discussions. The first spouse is just that, the spouse of the president. What, in fact, does this person actually do anyway? What are the expectations of a first spouse? If this is indeed a job, what is the job description? These are open questions as I'm not really sure, so please feel free to answer them (I mean, I know lots of great things have been done by first ladies in the past, but for the discussion of first spouses in the future, were any of those things really required of the first ladies in question, or was it some personal conviction that led them to do that?).

At January 5, 2009 at 1:56 PM , Blogger Josher said...

Is there anything that would compellingly go into such a job description to justify the addition of an extra paycheque?

That sounded trollish, but to elaborate: being realistic about this, giving the first lady a paycheque would do very little to give the taxpayer value for money. Give that the first spouse's job is usually to act, with a greater or lesser degree of autonomy, as a presidential proxy or goodwill ambassador, there seems to be very little that could be added to her/his job description to justify an autonomous constitutional role. Furthermore, I'm not sure that that's even desirable; the first lady is not, after all, elected, but nor is she appointed or given any oversight by any of the other branches of power. At best, this would make already vexed presidential elections much more complex, as the country gains an even greater license to pry invasively into the lives of presidential partners; at worst, it creates a constitutional paradox in which a state employee, effectively unfirable (short of divorce), is drawing a salary with no effective oversight outside of his or her husband or wife.

Perhaps the right to constitutionally define the role of the first lady / husband would be valuable. But at the moment, the first family does not get badly remunerated, albeit for one of the worlds' toughest jobs. I can see the logic of making the arrangement more egalitarian, I just can't see a way of doing so that isn't vexing in other, more worrying ways.


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