Two for the Price of One

First ladies and executive power


In 1993, Bill and Hillary Clinton offered America a two-for-one special: vote Bill into the White House, and the country would get Hillary there too, at no extra charge.

Not everyone was eager to snap up the offer. In fact, the idea that Hillary might act as a co-president made Americans more than a little nervous, and those jitters showed up quickly on the evening news, as you can hear in the segment above.

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Hillary and Chelsea Clinton look on as Bill Clinton takes the oath of office

But Hillary Clinton wasn’t the first powerful first lady that America has ever had, and not the first to make Americans anxious either. Lisa Burns, a professor at Quinnipiac University and scholar of presidential wives in the media, argues that there was a long history of this fear in the 20th century. People were afraid that first ladies would steal authority that was meant for their husbands and use it for themselves – a fear that wasn’t helped by the fact that no one, first ladies included, knew exactly what the limits of a presidential spouse’s power is. Says Burns,

“There’s no definition of this position anywhere. It’s not in the Constitution. There’s no rule book that they’re given when they start. It’s all a matter of tradition. And a lot of it actually comes from media coverage and from public expectations.”

Even without a set of clearly defined powers, though, the public has tended to agree that a first lady who gets involved with making policy is a first lady who has gone too far. Burns again:

“Whether they’re lobbying for legislation, whether they’re actually heading up those legislative efforts, that’s when we see [people], particularly the press, [get] very uncomfortable with the first lady all of a sudden moving from the East Wing into the West Wing, and there are questions about, is she the power behind the throne? Is she the one who’s really running things in the White House?”

As first lady and a policy activist, Eleanor Roosevelt was accused of just this kind of overreach. In 1941, she became the first first lady to assume an official government position while her husband was in office when she took the job of Associate Director of the Office of Civilian Defense. Her work there involved handling communities’ side of the war effort, including organizing volunteers and securing funding for things like children’s day care. The public, the media, and even Congress, however, saw sinister implications in what she was doing. They questioned her hiring decisions, the usefulness of the office, and whether civilians should be able to head a government agency at all. Eleanor ended up resigning from the post, citing concerns that the attention on her role there would detract from work being done.

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Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR, together at the helm of the “Ship of State”

But her work at the OCD wasn’t her only or even her largest political contribution. As first lady, Roosevelt was uniquely positioned both to promote FDR’s agenda and deflect criticism away from him. She could propose policy ideas in public, and if people responded negatively, FDR could escape the backlash by chalking it up to her having a “mind of her own.” She ended up acting as a sort of advance scout for some of the more controversial parts of the New Deal.

This worked because, as Burns explained, Eleanor Roosevelt was seen as a separate entity despite working quite closely alongside her husband.

 

“What’s interesting, if you look at press coverage of first ladies, particularly their legislative efforts, they often don’t talk about it as an extension of the president’s power. They see it as the power of the first lady, that the first lady is somehow carving out this position for herself. So what’s interesting is their husbands manage to avoid criticism while they have criticism heaped upon them.”

Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton were both able to take advantage of this grey area to push their policy interests. But Burns says future presidential spouses may benefit from a legally clarified role. She points to the office of the president as an example of the way that definitions of powers and restrictions can lead to a more productive discussion about the abuse of power.

“You can look at those [restrictions on the president’s power] and say, these are the parameters, and make a judgment call, and make an argument, and show evidence that the person is overreaching. Whereas when you don’t have any kind of definition, it’s much harder. It’s almost saying, well, I don’t like you [just] because.”

What do you think? Should the first spouse’s role be set down in law? Does the first lady have political legitimacy as it is? Let us know in the comments. You can listen to our entire show in executive power through American history here.

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