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First Lady's Support for Military Families: Is It Real? Is It Effective?

I tend to get just a tad cynical when I hear about America's First Ladies and their pet causes. Adopting a cause while their hubby is in office has become a sort of unwritten prerequisite for every First Lady.

The tradition actually if unofficially dates back as far as Jackie Kennedy, whose cause was about as substantive as one would expect: refurbishing the White House. Then there was Nancy Reagan, whose "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign was largely ridiculed.

In an amusing recent Zomblog, it ranks the First Lady causes in terms of how socially significant and successful they actually were. But first ladies have actually gotten a little more serious in recent administrations. Our current First Lady Michelle Obama has chosen two causes: childhood obesity and military families.

This past week, she delivered arguably her most most impassioned pitch yet for American employers to hire veterans and military spouses. Her speech, "Harnessing Human Potential" was delivered at the closing session of the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative , a gathering held in New York City that united organizations and nonprofits with corporations, financial institutions, and government leaders who work together to devise "commitments" that result in sustainable economic and social development, primarily in developing nations.

According to Examiner.com, Mrs. Obama noted that '150,000 recent veterans are still struggling to find jobs. True, we are facing difficult economic times and we are working hard to get everyone back to work after a prolonged recession." That number is actually going to get much higher as more troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan. The point is, in the speech Mrs. Obama said veterans face a particularly difficult path largely because many do not know how to translate their military experience into applicable civilian terms, and most employers do not understand how their skills and background are applicable. The result, she said in the speech, is that veterans are "underutilized... They are paid less than they deserve in jobs that don't harness their talents."

I have no reason to doubt Mrs. Obama's sincerity and her good intentions. But her speeches in support of hiring veterans and their families raise an issue that I've considered with each First Lady who takes on a cause while living in the White House: How effective are they in actually making real changes and in influencing policy? Will her speeches really have any positive impact on a Marine family living in Oceanside, for example, or a Navy family living in National City? Or is it more just public relations for the Administration?

As Examiner reports, Mrs. Obama mentioned the New GI Bill in her talk, and a policy to make veteran hiring a priority in the federal government - 33,000 in the first half of the year, a 33 percent increase over last year, she noted. She also said that the Department of Defense is working with states to streamline licensing, so military spouses who are forced to move every few years do not have to take new tests as teachers and the like. "But as you know, government can only do so much," she said in the speech. "That's why I'm here, to ask for your help."

The First Lady has no actual legislative powers, of course. Which is not to say that she can't be influential to both the public, and her husband, and do good things from her bully pulpit. But I think everyone agrees that it would be nice to see something really meaningful come out of Mrs. Obama's evident passion for the plight of American's military families. Something big. Something lasting.

I was skeptical about Laura Bush's sincerity at first, too, when she took on education and literacy, but according to Mrs. Bush's website, since its inception in 2002, The Laura Bush Foundation for America's Libraries has impressively awarded more than $7.3 million to 1,433 schools in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. In addition to these yearly grants, the foundation has also awarded more than $5.7 million to school libraries in the Gulf Coast region to rebuild their library book collections that were lost or destroyed by hurricanes or storms.

The Laura Bush Foundation for America's Libraries recently announced that 188 school libraries are being awarded $1,098,634 in grants for 2010. The schools receive grants of up to $6,000 to expand, update and diversify their library book collections. Mrs. Bush joined the Foundation in making the announcement at Jose de Diego Middle School, of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. A total of six Miami-Dade Schools received awards this year.

I would be pleased but not surprised if we see this same kind of commitment from Mrs. Obama to veterans, one that continues even after her husband is out of office and she is out of the harsh daily media spotlight. Her teaming up on this cause with the Clinton Global Initiative and its powerful, moneyed members seems to be an ambitious and smart step in that direction.