When Barack Obama delivered his first State of the Union address in 2010 he brought lawmakers to their feet when he spoke about his wife Michelle and her work in her new role. “I want to acknowledge our First Lady, Michelle Obama,” he said, “who this year is creating a national movement to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity and make kids healthier.” Mrs. Obama, who officially launched her Let’s Move! campaign the next month, was so embarrassed by the praise that she mouthed the words “sit down” to the crowd. President Trump’s State of the Union, in stark contrast, was almost an hour-and-a-half long—the third-longest State of the Union in history—without any meaningful mention of his wife, Melania.
The State of the Union was Mrs. Trump’s first public appearance since the allegations were revealed that her husband had conducted an affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, and her cream-colored Christian Dior pantsuit sent a strong message. The color white has come to symbolize the suffragist movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the pantsuit is synonymous with her husband’s rival, Hillary Clinton. Hillary’s penchant for pantsuits even inspired a secret Facebook group—“Pantsuit Nation”—of mostly female supporters during the 2016 election. It was a stunning fashion choice for the wife of a man accused of cheating on her.
But Trump may have been sending a message of his own, as he defied tradition last night and virtually left his wife out of his speech almost all together, except for two brief perfunctory mentions: at the beginning (“Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, the First Lady of the United States, and my fellow Americans”), and when he was introducing a guest in the First Lady’s box (“We heard tales of Americans like Coast Guard Petty Officer Ashlee Leppert, who is here tonight in the gallery with Melania”). It’s as if she’s a nonentity in his White House.
PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
The tradition of presidents honoring their wives goes back more than two decades. After Laura Bush calmed the nation following the terror attacks of September 11, her husband, George W. Bush, praised her in his first State of the Union: “I hope you will join me in expressing thanks to one American for the strength and calm and comfort she brings to our nation in crisis, our First Lady, Laura Bush.” In 1996, Bill Clinton, no stranger to a strained marriage, took a moment to recognize his wife’s contributions to his administration, when he gushingly said, “I would like to take just a moment to thank my own family, and to thank the person who has taught me more than anyone else over 25 years about the importance of families and children—a wonderful wife, a magnificent mother and a great First Lady. Thank you, Hillary.” For Melania, there was no such praise—not even a mention of the role she has carved out for herself as a caring mother to the Trumps’ 11-year-old son Barron.
PHOTO: Terry Ashe
This could, of course, change if the Trumps can move past this period of obvious tension in their relationship or Melania chooses a more active role. Ronald Reagan gave his most touching compliment to wife Nancy at his last State of the Union, in 1988, as he pointed to her campaign to combat drug abuse. “The war against drugs is a war of individual battles, a crusade with many heroes—including America’s young people, and also someone very special to me,” Reagan said. “She has helped so many of our young people to say ‘no’ to drugs. Nancy, much credit belongs to you, and I want to express to you your husband’s pride and your country’s thanks. Surprised you, didn’t I?” George H.W. Bush similarly praised his wife, Barbara, at his last turn on that stage: “When Barbara holds an AIDS baby in her arms and reads to children, she’s saying to every person in this country, ‘family matters.’”
Like many of her predecessors, Mrs. Trump has felt great pressure to live up to the endless and undefined expectations that accompanies the archaic position of First Lady. So far she’s chosen to stay out of the fray; others, including Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter and, of course, Hillary Clinton, tried to reshape the role by becoming deeply involved in their husband’s administrations. (Lady Bird and Rosalynn even looked over their husband’s State of the Union speeches and offered suggestions.) It is hard to imagine Melania doing the same, especially to no applause by her husband.
Kate Andersen Brower is a CNN contributor and the author of the New York Times bestsellers First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies and The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House.