The president of the United States is a powerful person. He’s often called “the leader of the free world.” By extension — since he’s so powerful — the woman he’s married to also becomes a very public figure. But the responsibilities of the First Lady aren’t as substantial and definitely not as comprehensive. Traditionally, all the First Lady is supposed to do is pursue an issue that matters to her and is non-controversial. For example, Lady Bird Johnson believed that beauty could improve the mental health of a society, so she started a campaign to plant more flowers on highways and to remove junkyards and billboards. It’s almost always a win-win situation: Some problem that needs fixing in America gets help in the form of White House muscle, but without the political mess.

Our current First Lady, Michelle Obama, has decided to tackle obesity, with a focus on children. At first glance, her campaign called “Let’s Move!” looks like a great idea. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2008, 19.6 percent of 6 to 11-year-old children were obese, as well as 18.1 percent of 12 to 19 year olds. Even more children and adolescents are overweight and not necessarily obese. Forbes.com reported that 74.1 percent of adults in the United States are overweight as of 2007. Mrs. Obama’s plan to handle the obesity epidemic includes encouraging active lifestyles for children starting at an early age, giving information to parents on how to promote healthy choices and making nutritious food available for students in schools and to families everywhere. Non-controversial and meaningful. This should be a home-run, right?

Not so fast, say the Republicans — as they do with everything an Obama does. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin said last year that, “What [Michelle Obama] is telling us is she cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own children, for their own families in what we should eat … instead of a government thinking that they need to take over … just leave us alone.” This quote is funny for two reasons. First, no government official is trying to tell anyone how to live — Obama is merely suggesting how people can live healthier lifestyles and providing information on how to do it. How there is controversy here is beyond me. Second, while she was governor of Alaska, Palin said that childhood obesity: “needs to be addressed at the individual, community, state and national levels.” The hypocrisy is staggering.

Let’s give Palin the benefit of the doubt — maybe she’s changed her mind about how to solve America’s obesity problem. If so, she should have been similarly outraged at former First Lady Laura Bush’s work in promoting literacy. I can just imagine Palin getting mad about “big government intrusion” and how it’s going to force everyone to read books. She would probably say something like, “Get government out of my life. Don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t read, or whether I or my kids should even be able to read at all.” The problem is that Laura wasn’t being socialist. She was just recommending that people read because a literate country is a strong country. Maybe Palin would have a skewed perspective on the need for the government to promote reading, though, because of her reading prowess. Remember what she said to Katie Couric about what newspapers she reads? “Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years.” What a reader.

To be fair, some in the GOP have not embraced Palin’s attitude on “Let’s Move!” However, to many people in the Tea Party, this anti-obesity campaign is exactly the type of government intrusion they hate. Just listen to talk-radio ratings titan Rush Limbaugh rail against it weekly (although he, of all people, could use some exercise). I think that playing games with America’s health is immoral, especially since one of the reasons for skyrocketing health care costs is obesity-related diseases like diabetes. But some people don’t stop at blaming Obama for growing the size of government. Matt Drudge, author of the conservative “Drudge Report,” has pushed a study trying to link Obama to the 0.4 percent-increase in pedestrian deaths for the first half of 2010. How are the two related? More people are walking around to get fit — right into traffic, apparently.

In summary, Michelle is promoting socialism and killing people. Although honestly, according to the Tea Party, all Obama policies do that.

Dar-Wei Chen can be reached at chendw@umich.edu.

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