National / Politics

No-show is no snub by family-oriented first lady

by Ben Dooley

Kyodo

When President Barack Obama touches down in Tokyo for the first state visit to Japan by a U.S. president in 18 years, his popular wife, Michelle, will be in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, urging national business leaders to hire more military veterans.

The arrangement, taken together with the president’s decision to forgo the Diet address usually included in such visits, has put the Japanese media in a snit, with many commentators arguing that the decision shows Japan’s diminished importance to the United States.

Mrs. Obama’s high-profile China holiday in March with mother and two daughters in tow compounded the perceived slight. Her weeklong trip to the Middle Kingdom included visits with President Xi Jinping and his wife, meetings that seem to have left some bureaucrats sleepless in Tokyo.

Upper House member Kazuyuki Hamada put an unabashedly salacious spin on Mrs. Obama’s no-show: “It’s an open secret that the president and first lady are negotiating a divorce and are waiting until Obama’s presidency is over to separate,” Hamada wrote on his official blog on April 5, shortly after the visit’s announcement. The U.S. president, he couldn’t resist adding, has “used the secret service to hide evidence that he’s a cheater.”

But, this may be one of the rare occasions when truth is less strange than fiction: The fact is Mrs. Obama has rarely accompanied the president on his international travels, participating in only nine of 25 presidential overseas trips between 2009 and June 2013, according to research done by Kyodo News.

Nor is this the first time Michelle Obama has skipped an official visit: In 2011 she also passed up dinners with U.S. allies Poland and Australia.

But, there’s no reason to believe, as Hamada does, that the data say anything about the Obamas’ relationship: She’s just not that into travel. As of July 2013, Mrs. Obama had taken only 14 trips out of the United States for a total of 72 days abroad, an average of eight days every six months, according to calculations based on data from a 2013 study by the National Taxpayers Union.

Compare that to her predecessor, Laura Bush, who, during a slightly longer period, logged 116 days on 26 trips, averaging 11.6 days overseas every six months.

Mrs. Obama’s absence in Japan is not a slight; it’s just another data point, according to the first lady’s communications director, Maria Cristina Gonzalez Noguera.

“The first lady doesn’t always travel on the president’s foreign trips,” Noguera said. Instead, she “has always chosen her trips based on what’s best for her family.”

That assessment rings true for Anita McBride, executive in residence in American University’s government department and a former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush.

“One thing to remember about Mrs. Obama is that she did set the tone very early on that she was going to focus on her family first,” McBride said.

Carl Anthony, historian at the National First Ladies Library, suspects the decision was also based on “her schedule. She may have had prior commitments.”