WASHINGTON — Is this what Michelle Obama looks like untethered to the pressure of a campaign? Is she free to follow her whims without worries about political backlash?
The first lady became the buzz of the weekend when she beamed into the Academy Awards from the White House to present the award for Best Picture with Hollywood legend Jack Nicholson. Attendees and viewers were flabbergasted at the satellite image of the elegantly dressed Obama, flanked by young service members in full regalia, opening the envelope to name Ben Affleck’s “Argo” the winner.
“It just seem(ed) so natural because the whole thing is so unnatural,” Affleck told reporters after the show — right after he said he thought he was “hallucinating.”
In other words: What’s the first lady doing at the Oscars?
Apparently, having fun.
“As a movie lover, she was honored to present the award and celebrate the artists who inspire us all — especially our young people,” Kristina Schake, the first lady’s communications director, said in a statement.
But the notion that Obama made the virtual appearance for the pure pleasure of it created confusion among both fans and detractors. Was she toying with Hollywood stardom for its own sake? And if she were, was that OK? In Washington, stardom can seem frivolous.
“The only thing that was missing was seeing her walk down the red carpet,” said Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. “She’s as glamourous as any other star, (and) she is comfortable in that role. As far as the optics in the national conversation, you can see where the other half have come down, (asking) ‘Is this really necessary?’”
Star turn without a cause
The Obamas have assiduously reached beyond Washington — showing up at sporting events, on entertainment television, social media and local media. But the first lady has rarely engaged pop culture without also pushing one of her own causes. Sunday’s appearance felt at once out of sync with the first lady’s careful messaging and also part of a natural evolution, said Katherine Jellison, a professor of women’s history at Ohio University who has studied first ladies.
“I get the feeling that she is for the first time maybe really relaxing and enjoying her celebrity-hood,” Jellison said.
The questions, both compliment and criticism, may be compounded, coming on the tail end of chatter (most of it gleeful) about her dance skit with late-night host Jimmy Fallon. Dressed in dowdy drag, Fallon was joined by Obama to demonstrate the “Evolution of Mom Dancing.” The performance, which ended with Obama doing the Dougie, went viral online.
In the weeks before that, Michelle Obama joked to daytime TV host Rachael Ray that she had cut her bangs as part of a midlife crisis. And earlier this year, Obama tweeted from her FLOTUS account that she was “Watching the.Super Bowl with family & friends. Beyonce was phenomenal! I am so proud of her! -mo.”
There is no job description for first ladies, and Obama is stretching the role in new directions. But she is not the first member of a first family to engage with Hollywood and the Academy Awards.
At the 1941 show, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a six-minute, direct-line radio address from the White House, paying tribute to Hollywood.
In 1980, President Ronald Reagan made a cameo with a video address to the audience. He had been a movie star himself.
Even Bill Clinton presented at the Golden Globes.
And in 2002, Laura Bush appeared in a short Oscars documentary called “What Do Movies Mean To You?”
But this was bigger and bolder. Obama was reading alongside entertainers, leading to the inevitable question: Is America ready for a first lady as entertainer?
Obama was approached by the Academy Awards, which celebrated some Washington-based films this year, to be a presenter, the White House said. According to Hollywood trade publications, Academy President Hawk Koch said the plan came from film producer and studio executive Harvey Weinstein and his daughter, Lily. The first lady immediately said yes, Koch told the Hollywood Reporter.
Weinstein, an Obama supporter who raised millions of dollars in the 2012 campaign cycle, joined Koch and the show’s producers two weeks ago at a meeting with the first lady’s staff to hammer out details. They kept her appearance a secret and exulted after it came off. (Getting Michelle Obama as the show-closer for what amounts to the Hollywood community’s annual convention was a major coup for Weinstein, a gifted impresario legendary for his skill mounting sophisticated PR campaigns designed to raise a movie’s profile or ingratiate its stars with Academy voters.)
The timing was perfect for the White House, noted McBride. President Obama and the first lady were already hosting the nation’s governors for dinner Sunday night, so the first lady was dressed up, and the service members in the background were already on hand.
Obama’s appearance could boost the nation’s movie industry and provide a way to say thank you to big-money Democratic donors in Hollywood, McBride said.
But Elizabeth Mehren, a professor of journalism at Boston University who covered first ladies from Nancy Reagan to Hillary Clinton, viewed the appearance in more personal terms for Obama. “She had to repackage herself as not being the angry Harvard law graduate,” Mehren said. “She had to become Betty Crocker. But now she occupies a pedestal of her own.”
Pedestal or not, the first lady caught some flak for the transcontinental appearance.
Television critics panned it as part of a disjointed Oscar ceremony and said she risked overexposure. Republicans tweeted out their displeasure.
Conservative commentator Tammy Bruce wrote: “GAH!!! Michelle Obama?! Just when I thought there was something they wouldn’t be on!! GAH!!!!!!”
Obama, who usually goes to bed early, seemed pleased a day later about the appearance. In remarks to the National Governors Association on Monday morning, she said, “If you noticed, I stayed up a little bit later ... a little bit longer than I had anticipated, but it was well worth it.”
On Wednesday, Obama will be back on message, joining Ray in Clinton, Miss., “to highlight the new healthy school lunches that are now being served across the nation,” the White House said. That visit, which is part of the third anniversary tour for the first lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity, will be broadcast later on Ray’s show.