ABOUT THE BOOK
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. 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 recent 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.
A Look Inside
The day following the 2012 Democratic National Convention, polling firms noted that Michelle Obama’s speech received over one million more online views than President Clinton’s speech, more than eight times the number of online views received by President Obama’s speech, and more views than all of the speeches made at the Republican National Convention combined (1). Mrs. Obama’s speech also drove unprecedented levels of social media activity, generating an average of 28,003 tweets per minute, nearly double the tweets for which Mitt Romney’s RNC acceptance speech was responsible (some 14,289 tweets per minute, according to USA Today). And no less notably, the picture of Mrs. Obama hugging her husband on the 2012 campaign trail in Iowa, wearing a quintessentially American red and white gingham sundress, was the most re-tweeted and received more likes on Facebook than any photo in history. Michelle Obama has also been documented as the most televised American first lady, with 44 television appearances from 2008 to 2011 alone, dwarfing Laura Bush’s 12 appearances from 2001 to 2004 and Hillary Clinton’s 19 appearances from 1993 to 1996 (2). When she appears on primetime television, networks witness hikes in their ratings, as the producers of The Biggest Loser, iCarly, Top Chef, and Parks and Recreation.....
"Lauren Wright gives us a scholarly, rich, and thoroughly readable account of the dynamic role that first ladies have played in the life of the U.S. presidency. A hot topic not only because one of our first ladies now seeks the presidency herself, this study is vital to understanding how the White House really works."
—MIKE MCCURRY, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY, 1995–98
"Lauren Wright’s On Behalf of the President shines a scholarly light on a subject matter that largely has been left in the dark: our first ladies. Thanks to her extensive research and her ability to make the results accessible to anyone who ever admired the first lady, readers will soon discover that these remarkable women do more than host state dinners or serve afternoon tea. Wright’s work is both historically important and culturally entertaining."
—JEAN BECKER, CHIEF OF STAFF TO PRESIDENT GEORGE H. W. BUSH;
FORMER DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY TO FIRST LADY BARBARA BUSH
"First Ladies are popular idealizations of motherhood on a presidential pedestal. They do social good, reach out to others, and demonstrate the human side of the administration. But they are also used surreptitiously by the White House to advance the president's political and policy agenda. Lauren Wright explains the how and why of this process in an extremely well written and provocative analysis. This book is a major contribution to our understanding of the contemporary presidency."
—STEPHEN J. WAYNE, PROFESSOR OF GOVERNMENT, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
"Lauren Wright takes a topic that is often treated as fluff -- the persona of the First Lady -- and gives it the serious treatment it deserves. Her work is lively, readable - and persuasive."
—ANNE KORNBLUT, AUTHOR OF NOTES FROM THE CRACKED CEILING: HILLARY CLINTON, SARAH PALIN, AND WHAT IT WILL TAKE FOR A WOMAN TO WIN.
"Lauren Wright brings much needed scrutiny to the long neglected topic of modern first ladies. Her argument--that strategists deploy presidential spouses to achieve critical policy objectives--has wide-ranging implications for understanding national politics and presidential power. Readers can never underestimate the role of First Lady ever again."
—MICHELE K. GILLESPIE, PRESIDENTIAL PROFESSOR OF SOUTHERN HISTORY, WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY
"With her rigorous research and careful ear for rhetoric, Lauren Wright unveils an under appreciated and undeniable force in our national conversation: first ladies, a unique set of immensely influential and popular yet unelected political leaders. Wright’s close examination of a truth so many have overlooked reveals why it’s important for political scientists, pundits, and people who vote to remember that there’s room for two behind the bully pulpit."
—STEPHEN KRUPIN, DIRECTOR OF EXECUTIVE COMMUNICATIONS AT SKDKNICKERBOCKER AND DIRECTOR OF SPEECHWRITING ON PRESIDENT OBAMA'S RE-ELECTION CAMPAIGN
"Lauren Wright has achieved that rarest of scholarly contributions: to address a deeply familiar subject (First Ladies, in this case) and indelibly shift our perspective. All readers of this beautifully-crafted book will come away with an enduring appreciation of how the modern presidential spouse can both enhance a president’s image and advance White House policy priorities."
—ROGAN KERSH, PROVOST AND PROFESSOR OF POLITICS AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY
"With their proximity to power, convening authority, and high visibility, First Ladies of the United States have influenced U.S. politics and shaped global diplomacy throughout history. I applaud Lauren Wright for her excellent book, On Behalf of the President, that analyzes the evolving attitudes toward and expectations of this position as well as the forces that have empowered--and challenged--a first lady’s ability to affect change and support the President and the nation."
—ANITA MCBRIDE, EXECUTIVE IN RESIDENCE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS; FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF TO FIRST LADY LAURA BUSH