6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications

On May 10, 2016, the Women in Public Service Project and History and Public Policy Program co-hosted the event “On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications.” Gwen Young, Director of the Global Women’s Leadership Program and Women in Public Service Project at the Wilson Center, moderated the event and gave opening remarks. Dr. Lauren Wright, the author of “On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today,” was the guest speaker.

Gwen Young opened the discussion by referencing Dr.  Wright’s book and by commending her for the distinguished scholarly work on an under-researched issue. In response, Dr. Wright expressed her gratitude to the Wilson Center for inviting her to speak, stated what this book meant to her and how a PhD class inspired her to write it: “In one of my PhD classes at Georgetown University we spent only a week covering the material on the first ladies of the United States. That is when I realized that political scientists have neglected the political importance of presidents’ spouses and was inspired to conduct extensive research on the topic.”

In researching this book, Dr. Wright analyzed nearly 2,000 speeches made by Hilary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama.  As Dr. Wright explained, “in my research I found first ladies tend to be more popular and favorable than Presidents and their Vice Presidents; first ladies have better name recognition than the sitting Vice President; and first ladies receive more public attention than any elected official.” In terms of publicity, Dr. Wright said, “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.” Dr. Wright also stated how the nature of speeches has shifted throughout history, from ceremonial speeches to policy ones.

 When asked about the role of the first lady, Dr. Wright said, “It is primarily a communication role strategically aimed at filling the character deficit of the President- by humanizing and enhancing his or her public image.”  As a follow up question, Ms. Young asked whether a male presidential spouse’s role would be any different than that of a female’s. “It is very unlikely,” Wright stated, “In the case of Bill Clinton, for example, he has been mobilized on the issues that the administration thinks he is most popular for and on issues for which he is known.” Having Bill in the picture with Hillary on the campaign trail has in fact been more effective amongst Republican men than having Hillary alone,” she added.

On the extent of the effectiveness of the role of first ladies, Dr Wright stated that first ladies have been highly effective advocates for national and foreign policy issues due to their ability to raise the public profile of an issue. To support her point, she gives an example of the sudden surge in U.S. foreign aid to Thailand in 2008 after the Thai government appealed to Laura Bush for the United States’ assistance in handling the consequences of the brutal campaign by Myanmar's military junta.

Lauren Wright ended the discussion by highlighting the importance of first ladies in the political and social spheres, and the need for more empirical and scholarly research on the topic. 

Speakers

  • Dr. Lauren Wright

    Author, On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today
  • Gwen K. Young

    Director, Women in Public Service Project