In Dr. Lauren A. Wright’s latest book, On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today (Praeger, April 18, 2016), she argues that first ladies are far more than a decorative political spouse, but rather an essential team player who is mobilized to enhance the public reputation of a presidential candidate and their policy agenda and, according to her data, they make a profound influence on public opinion. No first lady better typifies this than Michelle Obama who made more speeches and public appearances in her first six years than any other presidential spouse in history.
The book also documents the growing presence of the presidents’ wives in the communications strategies of the last three administrations (Clinton, Bush and Obama) and explores how the first lady serves to persuade public opinion, make personal appeals to the public on behalf of the president, and promote initiatives that support administration policies. More now, than at any other time in history, the first lady now bears responsibilities tantamount to a high-ranking cabinet member.
In a recent interview in Parade Magazine, Dr. Wright discusses the fact that if Donald Trump becomes president of the United States, his wife, Melania Trump, will be only the second first lady to be born outside of the United States. “It could be an asset. Melania Trump has the immigrant experience to share that so many Americans have had. She also speaks five languages, has traveled widely and didn’t start out in life with the financial and professional resources that the Trump children did. So she can relate to Americans on that level, too,” and, “she should not be underestimated.”
Dr. Wright on Bill Clinton:
There is substantial scientific evidence that Bill Clinton may be able to do for Hillary Clinton what presidential spouses have done for decades on the campaign trail and in the White House: generate support for Hillary Clinton among undecided voters and the opposite party by drawing on personal knowledge to soften her image, vouch for her character, and describe the kind of president she would be. The former president has been advocating for Mrs. Clinton in ways that humanize her, build up her character and vouch for her ability to lead people through “first-hand” accounts, yet keeping away from in-depth policy discussions.
In one round of survey experiments conducted by Dr. Wright, she found Bill Clinton actually hurts Hillary Clinton’s favorability among Democrats who see a picture of him beside Hillary Clinton (compared to Democratic respondents who saw Hillary Clinton pictured alone) but helps her favorability substantially among Republicans, especially Republican men and especially when the question is: Does Hillary Clinton “care about people like me,” “is she honest” and “is she down to earth?” In other words, on these same questions of character that spouses have historically been very effective at shaping.
The results indicate that Bill Clinton could be a tremendous asset in the general election, when independents and some members of the opposite party must be swayed when possible.
“The bottom line,” says Dr. Wright, “is I think spouses need to be as involved as possible—it is very difficult for a spouse to detract from a candidate’s image at this stage in the game and very easy for them to add to it in a positive way.”
Dr. Wright’s op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle titled, “Trump’s problem isn’t just himself: It’s his party,” was posted on September 26, 2016.
Lauren W. Wright, Ph.D., is the author of On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today (Praeger, 2016) and a member of the board of the White House Transition Project.
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