Considering the Performative Politics of Food
In the last two years, Michelle Obama has danced with Beyoncé, planted White House gardens with visiting students, and even jump roped on the lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as part of her Let’s Move! campaign. Let’s Move! represents the East Wing’s contribution to various peripheral White House initiatives on food, lifestyle and policy, focusing on reducing childhood obesity through a trifecta rooted in healthy eating, physical activity, and family fun. Obama makes her platform clear. “As First Lady,” she says, “this isn’t just a policy issue for me. This is a passion. This is my mission.” The language proves decidedly apolitical, alluding to specific policy reforms with only a tangential air.
In that respect, Michelle Obama resembles a kind of modern-day Nancy Reagan—though with a penchant for bare arms rather than red. Like Obama, Reagan implemented public awareness programs as First Lady with a similar youth-oriented focus. Her infamous “Just Say No” campaign strived to transcend the partisan politics of President Reagan’s War on Drugs. Here, policy became personal, assuming the rhetoric of old-fashioned family values. So when Michelle Obama recruited superstar musicians like Beyoncé, she took a page from a playbook pioneered by Nancy Reagan. In 1986, Reagan appeared in an anti-drug music video with various celebrities of the decade, including Whitney Houston and David Hasselhoff.
Though “Just Say No” endured criticism for simplifying discourse to the point of banality, Reagan’s campaign completely revolutionized the sync between the politics of the President and the public persona of the First Lady. Given the amount of recent controversies surrounding policy decisions from the Affordable Care Act to Sandra Fluke to economic stimulus, Michelle Obama’s push for healthy eating seems as though it should be small potatoes in the eyes of opponents looking to criticize the Obama administration. But Let’s Move! has endured critical fire since its inception, a testament to the increasing politicization of the healthy-eating-and-green-living movement, as well as the increasing personalization of politics.
“It doesn’t look like Michelle Obama follows her own nutritionary, dietary advice,” said Rush Limbaugh, notorious for his conservative politics. Limbaugh lambasted Obama as a hypocrite, citing a “braised short rib” meal the First Lady ate while on vacation in the resort town of Vail, Colorado. Limbaugh accused Obama of “eating ribs at 1,500 calories a serving with 141 grams of fat per serving,” though, according to the restaurant, the meal contained significantly fewer.
According to Eddie Gehman Kohan, whose “Obama Foodorama” blog examines various White House food initiatives, “Let’s Move! has been pointed to by a lot of critics as an example of big government intervening [into] what American citizens eat.” Yet Obama maintains that Let’s Move! is “not about having government tell people what to do, because government doesn’t have all the answers.” It’s people, not policy, and it certainly isn’t the imposition of a mandatory lifestyle. “What would life be without the bake sale, right?” Obama joked.
Limbaugh’s criticism of the campaign — though unique — proves the most interesting. His emphasis on the intersection between the personal and political speaks to an era in which the personal decisions of policy-makers shape public perceptions of that policy. Consider the emphasis placed on food and eating in presidential campaigns. Food serves as a powerful prop on the stage of political performance. During campaign season, politicians stop at boutique cafes and diners in New Hampshire and Iowa, proving loyalty to their constituents by eating their blueplate specials. 2012 Republican primary candidates love their corn dogs, too, especially if eaten at a state fair.
Modern American politics construes food as a symbol of political identification: Republicans love apple pies and Democrats are so-called “latte liberals.” Yet the conflation of political identity and culinary proclivities ultimately obscures discourse. Though issues surrounding food and nutrition may have partisan implications, the food choices of particular individuals do not. As the tension between individual choice and policy mandate expands, politicians and their constituents must reconcile the role of the politician as an actor and as a person.
Marissa Medansky is a freshman in Morse College.