She's no Hillary Clinton: Michelle Obama plays it safe in China

She's no Hillary Clinton: Michelle Obama plays it safe in China
After visiting the Great Wall of China with her daughters and mother on Sunday, First Lady Michelle Obama takes a toboggan back to the town of Mutianyu. (White House)

Michelle Obama, who has been an effective if tamped-down first lady, took her daughters and mother to China this week. The seven-day trip, which ends Wednesday, is not much different from other most traditional first lady trips, where highly choreographed appearances and interactions centering on the importance of education unfurl predictably.

Obama's conversations and statements are friendly, inspirational and anodyne.


The Obamas have also taken in the sights, and if you'd like to see what they have seen, you can read her official blog. Their itinerary includes the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall and the Chengu Panda Base, home to dozens of the magical creatures.

Only once has the first lady even remotely broached a sensitive political topic. In a conversation Saturday with students at the Stanford Center at Peking University, she took a veiled swipe at Chinese censorship.

"It is so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the Internet and through media," she told the students. "Because that's how we discover the truth, and how we learn what's really happening in our communities, in our country and in our world." (She said the same thing here, in a Q&A with the Chinese news site Caixin Online.)

I never thought I would say this, but Michelle Obama's low-key China trip makes me long for the days when Hillary Clinton held sway in the East Wing. Things were so much more exciting then.

It's been a long time since we've had a first lady who felt free to be herself on the world stage (or even at home, for that matter).

When she went to Beijing in 1995 as head of the U.S. delegation to the United Nation's Fourth World Conference on Women, Hillary Clinton was still reeling from the backlash that followed her husband's disastrous decision to appoint her as head of his healthcare reform task force.

But she did not shy away from controversy in China. Many consider her Beijing speech her finest moment--not just one of her finest moments as first lady, U.S. senator or secretary of State--but her finest moment, period.

Standing at a dais in a cavernous room filled with delegates from 180 countries, Clinton made an unequivocal stand for women.

"It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights," she told a rapturous crowd. "It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls. If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all."

One of Clinton's closest advisers, Melanne Verveer, was with her in Beijing. Verveer, who remains close to Clinton and served as U.S. ambassador for Global Women's Issues from 2009-13, reminisced about that moment a few weeks ago when we met at a women's conference in Rancho Palos Verdes. She told me she believes that on that Beijing stage, Clinton fully grasped the symbolic value of her role as first lady.

"Usually these meetings are so boring," Verveer said. "No one emotes anything. But the women started standing, and pounding on the tables. They were stunningly reactive to the fact that the wife of the most powerful man in the world would come and say, 'Honor killings are a violation of human rights' or 'Killing girl babies just because they are girls is a violation of human rights.' It was touching all these nerves all throughout that cavernous room. It changes you. You realize, this really does matter."

I give Michelle Obama props for her successful campaign against childhood obesity and her crusades for healthful eating and physical fitness. Her popularity, unhurt by these relatively uncontroversial causes, remains high. According to Gallup's latest poll, she has an approval rating of 66%, much higher than her husband's, which is not unusual. America usually likes its first ladies more than its presidents.

And wouldn't you know it, Hillary Clinton broke that mold too; she was the only first lady in recent memory to have suffered lower approval ratings than her husband. Or at least she did until the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal broke. But then, she has always paid a price for refusing to "stay home and bake cookies," as she so controversially put it in 1992.

Barbara Bush and Laura Bush, who were stay-at-home moms, had approval ratings in the 70s--higher than either Obama or Clinton. Both Bushes embraced the absolutely uncontroversial cause of literacy. (Even Lady Bird Johnson's "Keep America Beautiful" campaign, premised on the idea that ugly surroundings can impair mental health, was suprisingly subversive.)


As Democrats fret about hanging onto the Senate in the coming midterm elections, the first lady has already been on the fundraising trail. Some hope her relatively high popularity can help candidates shake off the negative fallout from the president's botched healthcare rollout.

But don't expect any fiery campaign rhetoric from Michelle Obama. Sadly, her mild critique of Chinese state censorship is about as politically bold as she gets these days.

Twitter: @robinabcarian