Jacob Heilbrunn

Michelle Obama's Imperial Trip

Michelle Obama visited the National Interest today. Well, not exactly. But she did show up at the local Subway sandwich shop around the corner, disrupting traffic and blocking access to the building that houses this magazine. (Joe Biden just whizzes up and down Connecticut Avenue to the vice-presidential mansion with an immense convoy with blaring sirens mornings and nights most days, but never seems to stop in between.) The result was that drivers began engaging in dangerous maneuvers to extricate themselves from the havoc created by her trip.

No doubt some amount of disruption is going to accompany any visit of a president or First Lady, but the Obamas, for all their talk about helping common folk, seem to display a striking insouciance when it comes to their travel arrangements, whether it’s in Washington, where they could go a few blocks on foot rather than increase their carbon footprint, or Los Angeles, where they pretty much shut down the entire city. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing is the complacency with which Americans accept the mounting intrusions of the government, whether it’s motorcades or the TSA. Other countries are different. German chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, might show up with a bodyguard or two when she attends a concert and does not use any special seating.

The reason for Michelle Obama’s visit was to promote her cause—all First Ladies in the modern era have to espouse a cause, and she has chosen a safe and uncontroversial one—of fighting childhood obesity. So she showed up with her cavalcade at a DC joint just a few blocks from the White House, where, according to her press office, she “joined the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) and SUBWAY® along with SUBWAY® Famous Fans Michael Phelps, Nastia Liukin, and Justin Tuck at a local Washington, DC, SUBWAY® Restaurant, to announce a three-year commitment by the chain in support of her Let’s Move! initiative to promote healthier choices to kids, including launching its largest targeted marketing effort to date. In addition to strengthening its already nutritious menu offerings to kids, SUBWAY® will launch a new series of campaigns for kids aimed at increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and will set new standards for marketing products to families.”

Well, whoop-de-do. Subway isn’t doing this out of altruism. It’s reaping good publicity for itself and, potentially, drawing more customers in the door who will get a chance to purchase the unhealthful but tasty wares that the company will continue to sell—potato chips, soft drinks, and so on. It’s an exercise, at bottom, in corporate branding.

At the same time, if Obama is so devoted to good health—and she clearly does spend a lot of time in the gym toning her abs and triceps—then she might have considered a different route toward L Street—namely, walking. Burning a few calories on the way to Subway wouldn’t be the end of the world and it would avoid the traffic snafus that inevitably accompany the movements of top officials. In our celebrity-crazed era, however, it seems to have become unthinkable for the president or his spouse to take a stroll outside the White House. Harry S. Truman used to take an early, brisk walk every day. Jimmy Carter walked down Pennsylvania Avenue at his inauguration. Of course there are threats to the president, dire ones. But a sense of proportion has been lost. Today, as part of America’s transformation from a republic to an empire, presidents and their near and dear are surrounded by a praetorian guard of security that renders it all but impossible for them to speak to common folk. One can only wonder what Theodore Roosevelt, who took a bullet at a speech, and kept on talking until he finished before he sought medical attention, would make of it all. Or Andrew Jackson, who in 1835 beat a would-be assassin with his cane after his gun misfired. What’s more, in 1992 the redoubtable Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan even went so far as to call the Secret Service a “disgrace and danger” to the republic for its constant attempts to aggrandize its power and sway.

In his lengthy interview in this week’s New Yorker, President Obama laments that he may never be able to walk into a store with a degree of anonymity and strike up a conversation. Fair enough. But we also learn that Obama’s memoirs are expected to fetch a record $20 million and that Michelle is already working on hers. The Obamas, or at least Barack, can’t have it both ways, which is to rake in the bucks on the basis of his celebrity and complain about it. But that does seem to be the consistent and odd pattern with President Obama. His New Yorker interview, you could say, showcases his predilection for seeing both sides without really taking a stand. An admirable stance for a professor. But a president?

His entire presidency, in some ways, appears to consist of Obama viewing himself as an observer rather than the principal actor. Maybe it really is Michelle who is running the show. She was certainly the star at Subway, where her performance stopped part of the city in its tracks. What it says about American democracy that our elected officials are now treated like royalty is another matter.