An in depth look at what makes a Modern First Lady Successful

First Ladies and their role in office of The President has become increasingly prevalent. This research will look at what aspects make a First Lady popular. To conduct this research, popularity ratings will be compared from Barbara Bush to Melania Trump. Overall scores will be compared, as well as notable spikes or drops in a rating throughout their time in office.

Although there has been speculation that a more traditional First Lady historically does better, there was little evidence to confirm this. By analyzing approval rating patterns, it is clear that when a First Lady takes on a historically feminine role, her approval ratings are better. Her rates do better when she is not only passionate about social issues, but acts on them repeatedly. It does not seem to matter if she takes on one large issue such as Barbara Bush and literacy, or several issues like Michelle Obama. Melania Trump has fewer causes that she draws national attention to, which partially explains her lower ratings. When it comes to large spikes in approval ratings, the usual cause is infidelity on The President’s part. Besides cheating, all of the First Lady’s actions are judged independently of her husband. The major exception to this rule is that Democrats tend to favor Democratic First Ladies more, while Republicans give higher approval ratings to Republic First Ladies. The growth in this office justifies more research for a historically overlooked position.

What we know

Jeffery E. Cohen’s analysis of Hillary Clinton’s time as First Lady in his paper “The Polls”: Public attitudes towards the First Lady  reveals that her rankings ranged between 50%- 65%, but dropped once she began speaking on a political platform ( Cohen 2000). However, her approval rose consistently once the news of her husband’s affair broke, and only dropped after the acquittal of Bill Clinton. His main takeaway is that the actions of the president affect his first lady more than the other way around (Cohen 2000). 

Lewis Gould’s article in the Fall 1990’s issue  Presidential Studies Quarterly, “Modern First Ladies and the presidency” published in 1990 acknowledges the attention grabbing power of the First Lady’s position, and the population’s fascination with her.  Gould’s writing  focuses on the social causes that the modern First Lady would take on. The most popular positions were one that the majority of the population already agreed with. Bringing black performers such as Eartha Kitt to the white house was not a favorable decision, but helping children was deemed acceptable and would improve a First Lady’s popularity ( Gould 1990). While this article analyzes First Ladies that came before the Bush’s, its relevance is important nonetheless. Gould briefly analyzes how a First Lady’s social campaign can impact her husband’s campaign, but it is not the main focus of the article. Rather, the author makes it clear that social campaigns are chosen based on the President’s official position, not the other way around. 

Valerie Sulfaro’s analysis of the presidential wives acknowledges the assumption that First Ladies who follow traditional gender roles are the most popular in her paper “Affective Evaluations of First Ladies: A Comparison of Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush” from 2007. However, much of this data comes from scholars, not the general public. This paper looks at the public, not scholars, to find the most popular First Lady.  Since popularity is subjective, it would make sense that supporters of a party are more likely to support a First Lady of the same party. Sulfaro acknowledges that Republicans will like Laura Bush more, while more Democrats will view Hillary Clinton in a positive light. There is also a tendency for voters to like people who resemble themselves and their values. It is evidence of this nature that can explain a person will view a First Lady, and why the entire process is subjective. 

This research looks at the personal nature of voters to see how it would influence their opinions of First Ladies, specifically Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. Higher educated voters tend to gravitate towards those who are also highly educated. The type of society voters were brought up in can also influence opinions. Older voters tend to support a more traditional role of the First Lady, while younger voters support those who take a more politically active role.  Voter age has little to no impact on favorability, but married voters supported a more traditional role of the First Lady than unmarried voters. A metric is applied to voters, rather than the First Lady in question to best determine who they will support. Overall, this paper concludes that First Ladies are not exempt from their husbands party  affiliation. Additionally, “the most recently favored  First Ladies seem to be the ones who are somewhat more controversial” in nature which is not hard to be in the recent political climate (Sulfaro 2007)

First Ladies Approval Ratings Throughout their Time in The White House (Table 1)

First LadiesHighest Rating Lowest RatingAverage
Barbara Bush86%81%83.5%
Hillary Clinton67%38%52.5%
Laura Bush80%63%71.5%
Michelle Obama72%58%65%
Melania Trump57%28%42.5%
(Jones 2017), (Reinhart 2018), (Jones 2006), (Bennett 2018), (Jones 2012)

A look at the First Ladies

Barbara Bush

By David Valdez, White House Photo Office –, Public Domain,

While there is not as much information om Barbara Bush’s approval rating, she is still considered one of the most popular in recent history (Robinson 2003). Her role as “America’s grandma” was secured through her charity work, as well as through her official White House platform, where she focused on improving literacy throughout the nation (The Sweeping Legacy 2018).

Part of securing her image of the lovable grandmother involved her choice of clothing and accessories. Her iconic strands of fake pearls is a notable part of her legacy as well (Friedman 2018). Although there is no evidence that her style choices made her popular, it would help keep her maintain her image, and therefore her approval ratings.

Bush served as a traditional First Lady, avoiding policy and focusing instead on the historically feminine aspects of the job. This approach registers with voters which explains her popularity throughout her husband’s time in office.

Hillary Clinton

By United States Department of State – Official Photo at Department of State page, Public Domain,

Hillary Clinton is often referred to as one of the most polarizing First Ladies. Her struggle to be likeable enough as a spouse to a presidential candidate, and eventually president, forced her to change her appearance, platform, goals multiple times to suit Bill Clinton’s needs (Kotlowski 2008)

Years of Hillary Clinton’s Highest and Lowest Approval Ratings (Table 2)

Highest RatingsLowest Ratings
1993 – 19941996-1997
1998 – 2000
Dugan, Andrew.. 2018. “Hillary Clinton’s Favorable Rating Still Low.” Gallup.Com. September 28, 2018.

In 1993, when Clinton first took office, the general public was not happy with the role that Hillary Clinton was taking on. Her image as a tough woman who “engaged in the affairs of state” was relatively unprecedented (Dowd 1992). However, in cooperation with her team, Clinton’s attempt to actively soften her image succeed. In combination with the honeymoon or grace period that all presidents have in their first few years, her numbers rose steadily. Overall, her numbers tended to gravitate towards 50% approval (Dugan 2018).

1996- The Whitewater investigation of 1996 sent both Clinton’s approval ratings back down drastically (Dugan 2018). This was not the first scandal for the Clintons, but it was the first time in American history that a First Lady received a subpoena ( Statement 2000).

1998- With Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial and infidelity hit the press, Hillary Clinton’s numbers rose to the highest they had been to date. This could be due to the general public feeling sympathetic to her in the wake of the scandal (Inc Gallup 2018). As far as First Ladies go, her approval ratings are low compared to both her predecessors and those who followed, as seen in Table 1.

Laura Bush

By White House photo by Krisanne Johnson –, Public Domain,

Although not as popular as Barbara Bush, Laura Bush’s approval ratings also ranked highly. Although her social causes varied, She remained every popular amongst all voters, with disapproval ratings never going above 15% (Robison 2003). In the aftermath of 9/11, Her approval ratings continued to rise until approximately 2002, where they decreased gradually by 14% until late 2004 (Jones 2009). A brief spike in 2005 to 80% made sure that her numbers never dropped more than 11% for the rest of the term (Jones 2009). The later spike can be attributed to her husband’s inauguration for his second term. During her time as a First Lady, there are no reports of scandals, misconduct, or anything unusual. It can be concluded that First Ladies who do not cause drama remain popular.

Michelle Obama

Official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama in the Green Room of the White House, Feb. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Even though her ratings are not as high as either of the Bush’s ratings, Michelle Obama ranks at least 10% above Clinton in all favorability polls while in office (Jones 2012). Unlike Laura Bush or Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama’s ratings remain relatively stable, with no statistically significant leaps or falls. Throughout her time in office, Obama ranged from 43% to 66%, with gradual inclines and declines (Jones 2012). Obama closely follows her predecessors style of advocating for multiple causes, which does not hurt a First Ladies image (Slevin 2016). She is well know for her clothing style, which is heavily influenced by affordable clothing, making her an icon. Between her tendency to lean towards American designers for formal dresses, and well known brands for more informal events, her down to earth style has permanently defined her as an American fashion icon (Donahue 2008). While this may keep her favorability rating high, it does not account for all of her ratings.

Melania Trump

By Regine MahauxWeaver, Hilary (3 April 2017).Vanity Fair. Archived from the original on 7 April 2017. “[O]n Monday[,] Archived from the original on 7 April 2017. – (page) (archived) (direct link) (archived) (license) (archived), CC BY 3.0 us,

Since Melania Trump’s term as First Lady is not yet over, Gallup does not have the same level of analysis that they do for the other First Ladies. For Melania Trump’s ratings, CNN has approval ratings through December 2018. In this time, Melania’s ratings ranged from 57%-24%, a range significantly larger than her previous counterparts. January through June of 2018 is recorded as Trump’s highest ratings in the first two years of her term. This spike directly correlates to Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels coming to light (Luckhurst 2018). Her approval rating is the lowest of all First Ladies in this list. On average, Melania makes fewer public outings, campaign trips, and goodwill missions that her previous counterparts (Bennett 2020). When it comes to her style, Trump is known for donning expensive designer clothes, she has also made several choices that have been highly criticized. Her infamous coat stating “I really don’t care do you” made headlines, along with the heels she wore to visit the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey (Rahmanan 2020). However, there was no correlating dips in her approval rating, meaning that once again, clothing has no impact on approval ratings.

What does this mean?

While Barbara and Laura Bush ranked highly throughout their terms, the ladies following them were not so lucky. Each First Lady offers an interesting perspective on the office, and the public’s view of the office. Both Bushes are largely unaffected by their husbands action or political affiliation. It is also important to note that there were no major scandals while they were in office, personal or political. Neither had an issue taking on the traditional feminine role of hostess, while continuously organizing for social causes as well. The positive trend in data during their terms indicates a positive response to staying out of drama and caring for those in need, as both women did.

Hillary Clinton has a different story, filled with drama and controversy. The Republican Party attacked her throughout her entire time as the First Lady for her activism and the position she took in her husband’s office (Dugan 2018). Bill Clinton’s infamous affair sent her approval rating to its highest point, a trend that we saw again with Donald and Melania Trump, proving that an affair gathers sympathy for the one cheated on. Melania Trump’s ratings rank lower than Hillary Clinton’s, despite the fact that Trump was relatively uninvolved with her husband’s official duties. However, her lack of dedication to social causes could not have helped her cause.

As the first black First Lady, Michelle Obama’s ratings have stayed relatively high. The pressure of being the first anything in The White House is immense, but especially when it comes to race. Overall, she remained dedicated to various causes, took on the roll of hostess, and avoided scandals, the keys to success as a First Lady.

While clothing is an important part of the role, there is no evidence that the type of clothing or accessories worn has any impact on popularity.

From the data, it is clear that for a First Lady to remain in the public’s good graces, she needs to be willing to take on the traditional role of First Lady, avoid scandals and be passionate about social causes. Of course, it does not hurt for her husband to cheat, but that cannot always be avoided.

All of this information becomes critical as the First Lady is expected to be in the light nearly as much as her husband. This office of the First Lady is understudied and underfunded, as is it seen as not a real part of the executive. However, in the age of social media, The President and his wife can be viewed and criticized more than ever; a popular First Lady can help the office as a whole, as well as be a liaison between the public and The Executive.

Works Cited

“Approval of First Ladies Splits on Partisan Lines | YouGov.” n.d. Accessed November 6, 2020.

Bennett, Kate. n.d. “Melania Trump’s Popularity Jumps in New CNN Poll.” CNN. Accessed December 8, 2020.

Cohen, Jeffery. 2000. “‘The Polls’: Public Attitudes toward the First Lady on JSTOR.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 30 (2): 374–81.

Donahue, By Wendy. n.d. “Michelle Obama Emerges as an American Fashion Icon.” Chicagotribune.Com. Accessed December 8, 2020.

Dugan, Andrew. 2018. “Hillary Clinton’s Favorable Rating Still Low.” Gallup.Com. September 28, 2018.

Friedman, Vanessa. 2018. “Barbara Bush: Soft Power in Fake Pearls (Published 2018).” The New York Times, April 18, 2018, sec. Fashion.

Gould, Lewis L. 1990. “Modern First Ladies and the Presidency.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 20 (4): 677–83.

“How Michelle Obama Became a Singular American Voice.” n.d. Washington Post. Accessed December 8, 2020.

Jones, Jeffrey M. 2006. “Laura Bush Approval Ratings Among Best for First Ladies.” Gallup.Com. February 9, 2006.

Jones, Jeffery M. 2009. “Laura Bush Leaves White House as Popular Figure.” Gallup.Com. January 14, 2009.

Jones, Jeffery M. 2012. “Michelle Obama Remains Popular in U.S.” Gallup.Com. May 30, 2012.

Jones, Jeffery M. 2017. “Hillary Clinton Favorable Rating at New Low.” Gallup.Com. December 19, 2017.

Kotlowski, Dean J. 2008. Review of Review of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady, by Gil Troy. International Social Science Review 83 (1/2): 109–10.

Luckhurst, Toby. 2018. “Why the Stormy Daniels-Donald Trump Story Matters.” BBC News, May 3, 2018, sec. US & Canada.

Mccarthy, Justin. 2017. “President Obama Leaves White House With 58% Favorable Rating.” Gallup.Com. January 16, 2017.

Rahmanan, Anna. n.d. “What Melania Trump’s Fashion Choices Say About Her Politics | HuffPost Life.” Accessed December 8, 2020.

Reinhart, RJ. 2018. “In the News: Barbara Bush.” April 18, 2018.

Robinson, Jennifer. 2003. “How to Find Favorability as First Lady.” Gallup.Com. August 12, 2003.

Sulfaro, Valerie A. 2007. “Affective Evaluations of First Ladies: A Comparison of Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 37 (3): 486–514.

The New York Times. 2000. “Statement by Independent Counsel on Conclusions in Whitewater Investigation (Published 2000),” September 21, 2000, sec. U.S.

“The Sweeping Legacy of First Lady Barbara Bush.” 2018. The White House. April 18, 2018.

“Then and Now: First Ladies | Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.” n.d. Accessed November 6, 2020.