Why Melania is winning in the court of public opinion

Melania Trump's Rose Garden announcement of her formal agenda on Monday, 16 months after becoming first lady, comes m...

Posted: May 8, 2018 9:23 AM
Updated: May 8, 2018 9:23 AM

Melania Trump's Rose Garden announcement of her formal agenda on Monday, 16 months after becoming first lady, comes much later than those of her predecessors -- Michelle Obama announced the "Let's Move" campaign 11 months into her tenure as first lady and Laura Bush announced her literacy campaign in July of her first year in the White House. Melania Trump's announcement is unique, according to her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, because, "She's not choosing just one topic as has been done in the past."

Doing things differently has not seemed to harm Melania's reputation; in fact her poll numbers are higher than her husband's, and as the chasm between the East Wing and the West Wing of the Trump White House widens, it is clear whose side most people are on.

A new CNN poll reveals a significant surge in the first lady's support. In a poll conducted last week, 57% say they have a favorable impression of Melania, up from 47% in January. This is higher than any favorability rating her husband has received in CNN polling history, going back almost 20 years. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans now have a positive view of the first lady, even as the headlines are dominated by allegations that her husband cheated on her with a porn star and reports on Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian election interference and possible links to Trump's 2016 campaign.

The old-fashioned East Wing versus West Wing battle of the sexes has been a prominent feature of every modern White House, but in the Trump White House the East Wing is winning in the court of public opinion. Melania has been the calm in the storm, posing with former presidents and first ladies at Barbara Bush's funeral, visiting children's hospitals, and planning a state dinner that went off without a hitch. The more different she is from her husband, the more divided they seem, the more impervious she is to criticism.

First ladies have often had difficulty making sure their agendas are not obliterated by their husband's. In the Kennedy White House, it was Jackie's formidable social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, in one corner and White House press secretary Pierre Salinger in the other. When Baldrige would walk between the West Wing and the East Wing by the White House swimming pool, President Kennedy would occasionally call out to her as he was doing laps. "Now what's with the East Wing? What are your problems today?"

In a Washington Post story on Monday, Grisham said that Melania carefully coordinates her public appearances and agenda with Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary. "Basically, we're like, 'OK, we'll put this out,' or, 'We'll wait for you.' ... We don't want to conflict with the President's message of the day, nor do we want him to do that to us." In this chaotic White House, though, it is not possible to work together seamlessly. Grisham added, "The 24/7 social media-cable news cycle and a West Wing that's very active ... perhaps overshadows some of the good work she's doing."

The Obama White House was not without tension between the East and West Wings. In the early days of the administration, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, excluded the first lady's chief of staff, Jackie Norris, from an all-important 7:30 a.m. West Wing planning meeting. Norris said the West Wing made a strategic miscalculation by not sharing more information. The President's advisers were consumed with anxiety about the economy during the recession, and they considered things that the East Wing was dealing with, like handling the logistics of getting the Obama girls to school, to be trivial. "There's equal parts blame to go around," Norris said. Staffers in the Obama East Wing were sometimes the last to know about the President's schedule and could be treated like second-class citizens. The East Wing began to be referred to as "Guam" by Obama aides because it felt so far removed from the center of power.

No modern first lady had a more fraught relationship with her husband's advisers than Pat Nixon. It was so bad that when Betty Ford became first lady she said, "They're not going to lead me around like they did Pat." H. R. "Bob" Haldeman was Nixon's chief of staff and tried to have complete control over every part of the White House, including the first lady's office. Haldeman and the President's counsel and assistant for domestic affairs, John Ehrlichman, took it upon themselves to reorganize the office of the first lady and combined the posts of staff director and press secretary. President Nixon himself even insisted on overseeing the delicate seating arrangements at state dinners, usually the purview of the first lady's office, and he wanted to weigh in on the musical entertainment and what was being served.

It seems Melania is not ceding territory as some of her predecessors have been forced to do. Monday's announcement, coupled with her new higher favorability rating, shows the power of the first lady to control her own message. And in this White House, the more removed from her husband's, the better it is for her.

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