OPINION: First Lady Michelle Obama’s legacy to be determined

(Simon Davis | DFID)

The current first lady may be best known for her obesity-tackling Let’s Move! campaign, her popular fashion sense and her passionate social advocacy for matters like girls’ education. Looking back on her tenure in the White House, Michelle Obama’s legacy will stand apart from her predecessors.

Seven years ago, 24 Bancroft Elementary students descended on the South Lawn of the White House in efforts to provide organic produce to those living in need in Washington, D.C., according to the WhiteHouse.gov brief “Planting the garden.”

With 500 pounds of donated leafy greens later, Michelle Obama’s first major deed as first lady has proven fruitful, according to Ellie Potter in the RealClear Politics article “First Lady plants her final WH vegetable garden.”

The first lady “declared that she would be purposeful, she would push substantive policies and she would strive to do work that will not evaporate when she leaves,” Peter Slevin said in the BBC article “International Women’s Day: What will be Michelle Obama’s legacy?”

Undertakings like these will live on in various forms as the Obama family moves out of the White House, leaving the next occupant with big shoes to fill.

Let’s Move!

Obama’s efforts to improve Americans’ food intake and nutrition were inspired when her husband was a senator, according Helena Bottemiller Evich and Darren Samuelsohn’s POLITICO article, “The great FLOTUS food fight.”

Split between raising two daughters, her work as an executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center, the president’s busy schedule and commute between Chicago and the Senate, the Obama family’s meals were often reduced to fast food and pizza, Bottemiller Evich and Samuelsohn said.

Arguably her biggest project, Let’s Move! set out in 2010 to end childhood obesity within a generation, according to the first lady’s biography on the White House’s website.

Calorie counts began to appear on the front of soda cans and bottles, the food pyramid was spread into a plate to aid families in balancing meals, more than 30 million American children were served more fruit, vegetables and whole grains in their school lunches, and physical activity was promoted more vigorously than ever, Bottemiller Evich and Samuelsohn said.

Because of the initiative’s long-term goals, it will take a while to accurately assess the venture’s success; however, obesity rates in children ages 2-5 have decreased from 13.9 percent in 2003-2004 to 8.4 percent in 2011-2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report “Childhood Obesity Facts.”

Joining forces

In 2011, Obama partnered with Jill Biden, Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, for the Joining Forces campaign to rally support among Americans for service members, veterans and their families, according to the White House biography.

“Joining Forces works hand in hand with the public and private sector to ensure that service members, veterans and their families have the tools they need to succeed throughout their lives,” according to the White House biography.

As a result, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans was 12 percent in 2011 and had fallen by almost 5 points in 2015, according to the White House employment fact sheet, “Fact Sheet: Veteran and Military Spouse Employment Hiring Commitments.”

Reach Higher, Let Girls Learn

The first lady launched the Reach Higher initiative in 2014 to encourage the pursuit of higher education among students of all backgrounds and economic levels. The program provides materials to students and families to compare the value and affordability of different colleges, according to the White House’s Reach Higher website.

“We cannot allow even one more young person to fall through the cracks,” Obama said on the website.

The newest campaign, Let Girls Learn, began in 2015 to help girls around the world attend and stay in school. Despite its relatively late beginnings, Obama has worked hard to move the plan forward by supporting community-led solutions to clear the way for 62 million adolescent girls around the world to get an education, according to the White House’s “Fact Sheet: Let Girls Learn.”

First lady Obama’s accomplishments in the White House and the impact of the many forward-thinking projects she worked on may not fully be attributed to her until their effects are fully felt in the future; after all, education and obesity rates don’t change overnight. Nevertheless, Obama’s legacy will be looked back on as a model of the influential role the spouse of the president can play during their time in the White House.

Contributing writer for the Collegian. I’m a senior studying journalism and mass communications and working on minors in political science and music. I also manage digital operations as a communications fellow with the Kansas Democratic Party; I do not report on or write about anything political unless it shows up in the opinion section.