On Monday, November 14, 2016, the Mosbacher Institute for Trade, Economics, and Public Policy, in coordination with the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation, hosted a discussion on the changing role of presidential spouses at this year’s ConocoPhillips White House Lecture. The program included a presentation on the influence of presidential spouses by author Lauren Wright, and a panel with former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush, Anita McBride; speechwriter and communications director for First Lady Hillary Clinton, Lissa Muscatine; and former ABC anchor Ann Compton who moderated the panel discussion. The night began with an introduction by David Jones, CEO of the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation. Mr. Jones pointed out various dignitaries in the room, ranging from Ohio Speaker of the House Cliff Rosenberger, to the recognized sailors of the year from the USS George H.W. Bush. Most importantly in attendance were President and Mrs. Bush for whom everyone stood applauding on their entrance. After Mr. Jones completed his introduction, Dr. Wright took the podium to provide some remarks and background from her recently published book, On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today.
The book was based on her dissertation at Georgetown University on the influence of first ladies on public opinion. Dr. Wright described how the role of presidential spouses has grown over the years. She pointed out that their approval polling tends to be higher than that of the President, and for the most part, much higher than that of the Vice-President—making the First Lady a powerful asset to White House communication strategies and on the campaign trail. Another characteristic that Dr. Wright emphasized was the increasing number of policy initiatives supported by the spouses, and how those initiatives typically align with and support the policies of the President. Whether it is Mrs. Bush’s push to increase childhood literacy in support of President Bush’s legislative agenda on No Child Left Behind, or Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move campaign in conjunction with President Obama’s support of the Affordable Care Act, spouses pick initiatives that support and expand the ideas of the Presidents.
At the conclusion of Dr. Wright’s remarks, Dr. Lori Taylor, Director of the Mosbacher Institute, introduced the rest of the panelists, and Anita McBride, Lissa Muscatine, and Ann Compton joined Dr. Wright on stage for a discussion on the role of spouses in the White House. Among the topics they discussed were what the American people expected from a presidential spouse. Ms. McBride commented on the need to draw on their ability to be relatable and allow people to draw on their authenticity. Ms. Muscatine pointed out that once in office, first ladies are under the microscope, and knowing how to deal with that type of pressure and coverage is key for a successful presidential spouse. Another question moderated by Ms. Compton looked to the historical context of the presidential spouses and asked the panelists for the defining moment when the first ladies gained prominence in the policy-making agenda of the White House. While there was differing discussion on when it began, all of the panelists pointed to the importance of First Lady Rosalynn Carter and her role in creating a permanent staff dedicated to the agenda of the President’s spouse.
After the panel concluded, Ms. Compton had a surprise presentation for the audience highlighting the experiences of First Lady Barbara Bush. The slide show concluded with the words, “She always was at the president’s side. She had his back, and she had ours.” The Bush School was honored to host an event dedicated to understanding the position that Mrs. Bush held with such dignity and pride.