The First Lady economy

US First Lady Michelle Obama takes part in a conversation with the 10th grade class at Columbia Heights Educational Campus on November 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. 

Healthy eating and exercise are soooo last year. Today, First Lady Michele Obama touted a new goal: Higher education. At a speech at a high school in Washington, the First Lady stated her goals to increase the number of students who graduate from college. When the first lady picks an issue like this, it is "like a celebrity endorsement, it can draw public attention," says Karen Petrou, a Washingto- based economist and Managing Partner at Federal Financial Analytics. "And, because it is from the White House, it also tends to come with significant policy implications." 

And those implications aren’t always positive. Remember the backlash when Hillary Clinton took on Healthcare reform? "There a view that first ladies should stick to ladylike issues," says Petrou. "Healthcare was a little too macho for the public taste at the time."

 

 

 


Michele Obama’s issues: exercise, healthy eating and now college education are all suitably… non macho…in addition to which the public loves this first lady. "We used to say around the White House, if you did something that was going to be really popular, 'Wow, you’re going to get Michele numbers with that,'" says Jared Bernstein, a Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a former member of President Obama's economic team. Bernstein says in addition to being popular, Michele Obama is also a very persuasive spokesperson….and person. "I remember once I was in line at the White House mess and I was going to get a cookie, and she walks up and I decided to get an apple," he laughs.  So just having her there makes a difference." 

Still, that doesn’t mean more kids will go to college says Bernstein. Take the 'Just Say No' anti-drug movement backed by Nancy Reagan. It got a lot of press, but studies found that students who were exposed to 'Just Say No' were just as likely or even more likely to use drugs.

About the author

Stacey Vanek Smith is a senior reporter for Marketplace, where she covers banking, consumer finance, housing and advertising.

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