When "Money" magazine asked executive salary experts to come up with a fair compensation for the first lady of the United States, one firm thought the best equivalent was COO (chief operating officer) of a global corporation. They estimated that a "first lady COO" working in Washington, D.C. should take home $287,000 a year.
Instead, first ladies from Martha Washington to Melania Trump have been paid exactly zero dollars, despite the fact that first lady-ing is a full-time job that requires the combined skills of an event planner, policy adviser, community relations manager, spokesperson, brand ambassador and we can only assume professional therapist.
But there's a reason why you will never hear a first lady rightfully grumble about equal pay for equal work. Because the White House knows that paying the first lady would effectively make her a politician. And if there's one thing we've learned from decades of political research — and the rise of outsider candidates like Donald Trump himself — it's that people hate politicians.
First Ladies Are Likable
Lauren A. Wright is a lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University and the author of "On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today," in which she argues that modern first ladies are much more than behind-the-scenes influencers. They are strategic and remarkably effective political operatives.
According to data cited in Wright's book (and reprinted here), first ladies enjoy favorability ratings their husbands can only dream about. When George W. Bush and Barack Obama's job approval numbers sank into the low 40s, for example, the favorability ratings of Laura Bush and Michelle Obama hummed along in the high 60s and 70s. The same is true for Melania Trump's approval ratings. And unlike their husbands, first ladies typically aren't as harshly criticized by the opposing party.
Because of their likeability, modern first ladies are increasingly called on to be the public-facing surrogate for the president. Starting in 2005, Laura Bush made twice as many public speeches as Vice President Dick Cheney, and three times as many in 2007 and 2008. Michelle Obama continued the trend, out-appearing Vice President Joe Biden every year her husband was in office.
When first ladies appear on daytime and late-night talk shows, or make the occasional sitcom cameo, ratings for those programs get a big bump. And when first ladies sit down for interviews, the press usually pitches softball questions about life in the White House and that dress they wore to the state dinner, bolstering their mom-next-door relatability.
They're Also Apolitical
While Wright absolutely believes that first ladies deserve to be paid for the important role they play in White House communications, she doesn't think it will ever happen. That's because the very source of a first lady's unique political power, says Wright, is her public perception as an apolitical "volunteer."
"The White House depends so much on their unpaid and unofficial status," Wright says. "There's an advantage to that, to be able to leverage this person who seems like they're apolitical, not vested in political outcomes. They don't have a professional interest in what's happening, which makes them more credible and genuine-seeming to the public."
While the folks at home eat up this image of the first lady as a supportive spouse and political naïf engaging in public causes out of the goodness of her own heart, it couldn't be farther from the truth. When first ladies choose a platform — like Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign or Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative — the decision is largely a political one and the programs are implemented by a paid and professional White House staff.
While the office of the first lady is not mentioned in the Constitution, her East Wing staff has been fully funded by Congress since 1978, starting with Rosalynn Carter. Wright says that modern first ladies are supported by paid staff typically numbering between 15 and 25 people with a budget of roughly $2 million.
According to a 2017 annual report to Congress, Melania Trump's chief of staff, Lindsay Reynolds, is paid $179,700 a year. Like prior chiefs of staff for the Office of the First Lady, Reynolds is also an assistant to the president, which means that she attends daily strategy meetings with the rest of the White House senior staff. This ensures that the East and West Wings are always on the same political page.
"I can't emphasize enough how self-aware the position and the office is and how professionalized it has become," Wright says. "In the Obama administration, we saw a lot of people coming from private sector PR and non-profit positions who specialized in the types of initiatives she was interested in launching."
It's not an accident that the issues and initiatives chosen by first ladies are often a "softer," more family-oriented version of their husband's policy priorities:
- Nancy Reagan was telling kids to "say no" to drugs while Ronald Reagan ramped up the War on Drugs.
- Laura Bush, a former librarian, promoted children's literacy as George W. Bush implemented No Child Left Behind.
- And Michelle Obama rallied kids and families to eat healthier and exercise as Barack Obama pushed to make preventative care a hallmark of the Affordable Care Act.
On May 7, Melania Trump unveiled her Be Best campaign, an effort to draw attention to issues facing children, namely their physical health and well-being, the psychological effects of social media bullying, and the opioid crisis. In this case, it's not as clear how the first lady's platform aligns with her husband's, and some critics have pointed out the irony of the wife of @realDonaldTrump calling for parents to teach children to "choose their words wisely and speak with respect and compassion" on social media.