Political scientists have failed to recognize the political importance of the president’s spouse. While the evolving role of the first lady over time from White House hostess to presidential advisor has been documented in historical narratives and news articles, the tremendous responsibility placed on her office to communicate the president’s message and shape his public image has received little attention according to Lauren A. Wright, Ph.D. in her book ON BEHALF OF THE PRESIDENT: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today. This responsibility has increased markedly in the last three presidential administrations, illustrated by the fact that Michelle Obama made more speeches and major public appearances in her first six years in office than any first lady in history.
In addition to demonstrating that presidential spouses are an integral part of White House and campaign communications strategy, this book challenges the popular notion among scholars that communications tactics designed to boost presidential popularity and garner support for the president’s policy agenda have a negligible impact on public opinion. Detailed examinations of speech transcripts, interviews with Washington insiders and former White House staff, and cutting-edge survey experiments inform an assessment of the possibility that presidential spouses are mobilized in a calculated effort to enhance the public reputation of presidents and their policy agendas, and that under some circumstances, these efforts can profoundly influence public opinion at the individual level.
The book clearly points out that First ladies have become as influential in American politics as elected officials. More than any other time in history, the first lady now bears responsibilities tantamount to a high-ranking cabinet member and 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.
Dr. Wright delves into the debate about what makes presidents and presidential candidates likable, what draws public support to their agendas, and why spouses appear to be more effective in these arenas than other surrogates, or even the presidents themselves. To further her research Wright interviewed journalists, scholars, and dozens of key former White House staff and communications strategists. Wright also did an in-depth analysis of almost 1,700 public speeches made by Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama, and conducted original surveys (with more than 8,000 Americans) testing the effect of public relations strategies involving spouses on political opinion. Key findings include:
- Presidential spouses are much more than personal confidants and advisors to the president.
- First lady public appearances serve several key purposes, including ceremonial duties, hosting state dinners, and relaying the president’s message to women and families (as well as garnering support for the president’s agenda).
- In Presidential elections, the spouse needs to be as involved as possible, as early as possible.
In her book on presidential spouses, Dr. Wright emphasizes “There is no doubt that presidential spouses are media superstars. What is more surprising is that their ability to attract the attention of Americans, and their propensity to actively seek that attention, surpasses that of other well-known surrogates and sometimes, presidents themselves. By promulgating stereotypes of first ladies as personal confidantes to the president and behind-the-scenes power brokers for decades, social scientists, historians, and journalists have failed to recognize one of the most important roles of presidential spouses: to enhance the president’s public image and expand public support for the administration’s policy agenda.
“As for the new first lady, Wright says she believes Melania Trump has many of the same attributes and tools available to her that made her predecessors such successful advocates for their husbands and their policy agendas. In survey experiments conducted by Wright throughout the 2016 elections and more recently, Mrs. Trump appears to be more of an advocate for the president compared to top surrogates like Vice President Pence and Ivanka Trump, and is even more effective at advocating for Donald Trump than Trump himself. Her favorability ratings remain higher than her husband, which is common for presidential spouses. However, Wright acknowledges, there has to be a will for there to be a way. For Mrs. Trump to help shape the image of her husband’s administration, she needs to be more publicly active.”
Dr. Lauren A. Wright is a Lecturer in Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University, where she teaches courses on the Presidency and Executive Power, Women and Politics, and Political Communication. Wright is the author of On Behalf of the President (Praeger, 2016) and is a contributor to The Hill and The Huffington Post. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, USA Today, US News and World Report, The San Francisco Chronicle, and PARADE Magazine. She is a frequent guest political analyst and has appeared on C-SPAN, MSNBC, and Fox News.