Melania Trump often seems like a reluctant first lady. But she’s stepping into the spotlight this week to take on a very traditional part of the role.
Mrs. Trump is unveiling her policy priorities — as have first ladies who have come before her — which are expected to focus on children. The announcement comes at a moment when her husband is under intense scrutiny.
Melania Trump rarely campaigned with her husband and waited months after his inauguration before moving to the White House. But she has made occasional appearances that offer clues about her priorities.
Her spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham tells NPR there are “many issues” facing children today, and that the first lady’s initiatives will try to help them to handle those challenges. Grisham says the first lady will continue to focus on many of the subjects she has addressed in the past.
Social media, cyberbullying and opioid addiction
Even before she became first lady, Melania Trump waded into what might seem like surprising territory for the wife of Donald Trump.
“Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough, especially to children and teenagers,” she said in a campaign speech in Pennsylvania just days before the 2016 election. There she talked about the downsides of the Internet, especially for kids who are bullied and mocked online.
The irony was hard to miss, as she acknowledged at a White House forum in March.
“I’m well aware that people are skeptical of me discussing this topic, but it will not stop me from doing what I know is right,” Trump said.
Social media and its effect on children will be one part of Melania Trump’s agenda, Grisham says. Children and opioid addiction will also be a priority.
In a speech to the United Nations in September 2017, Trump talked about several issues affecting children, including bullying, poverty and addiction. In October, she traveled to West Virginia, where she visited a treatment center for infants exposed to opioids.
She returned to that subject at a White House event on opioids later that month, where she said, “addiction affects children in many different ways, and I have recently taken a larger interest in what I can do to help fight this epidemic.”
No playbook for first ladies
Presidents’ wives have often found both themselves and their platforms under intense scrutiny.
Speaking in 2013, then-first lady Michelle Obama acknowledged the unwanted attention on her appearance — from her shoes to her bangs. But she said despite that, being first lady gave her a big opportunity.
“We take our bangs, and we stand in front of important things that the world needs to see,” Obama said.
American first ladies have traditionally chosen a range of issues of public concern, often causes related to public health. Abigail Adams advocated for women’s rights; Lucy Hayes, the wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, was involved in the anti-alcohol temperance movement.
More recently, Nancy Reagan was known for her involvement in the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. Obama tackled childhood obesity with her “Let’s Move” campaign, which drew the ire of some of her conservative critics.
Peter Slevin, who teaches journalism at Northwestern University and wrote a biography of Michelle Obama, says there’s “no playbook” for how a first lady should operate. He says each presidential spouse must develop her own set of priorities and plan for executing them.
Slevin says that may be especially challenging for Melania Trump.
“She’s dealing with a White House that is not exactly good at delivering a consistent message,” he says. “And in her own case, she comes with no experience at all in politics; even as her husband was running for office, she was in the background.”
A harsh spotlight
These days, much of the attention on the White House has focused on legal questions surrounding President Trump’s alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels. He has denied those allegations.
Even so, Melania Trump is pressing forward with her plans almost as if nothing has happened.
Myra Gutin, a historian of American first ladies at Rider University, says some president’s wives would have been put off by the controversies swirling around the White House — but not Trump.
“She seems to sort of roll with whatever occurs, and the fact that she’s going to get this initiative rolled out and finally moving seems to say to me that she’s going to be focused on the good that she can accomplish while she’s in the White House,” she says.
Gutin said the decision to focus on children is a good one, and in line with what past first ladies have done.
“She seems to be at her best when she’s with young children, visiting them in the hospital, reading to them,” Gutin says. “It just brings out a naturalness in her that I haven’t seen in other situations.”
Gutin said first ladies tend to be more popular than their spouses — which could give Melania Trump a chance make progress on her goals, regardless of what her husband is doing.