WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama travels abroad, sometimes it’s not enough for just the leader of the free world to show up. People in other countries want the first lady, too.
But Michelle Obama won’t join her husband when he heads to Asia next week, and her absence is likely to sting, especially in image-conscious Japan. It’s the first of four countries on Obama’s travel schedule and one of two that are welcoming him with official state visits.
“If Madame Obama could have come, it would have been better. But the most important thing is that President Obama accepted this is a state visit,” said Matake Kamiya, a professor of international relations at the National Defense University in Yokosuka, near Tokyo. “From an expert point of view, it’s sort of worrisome why Madame Obama isn’t coming.”
The fact that Mrs. Obama recently spent a week in China with her mother, Marian Robinson, and daughters Malia and Sasha also is sure to be noted in Japan, a close U.S. ally and China rival. But the first lady’s communications director, Maria Cristina Gonzalez Noguera, said it was not expected that Mrs. Obama would join the president on a return trip to Asia so soon, having returned less than a month ago.
“When it comes to international travel, the first lady has always chosen her trips based on what’s best for her family,” Noguera said in an emailed statement.
The last U.S. first lady who did not join her husband on a state visit to Japan was Gerald Ford’s wife, Betty. Ford became the first sitting American president to visit Japan when he arrived in November 1974, a few months after he took over the office from Richard M. Nixon.
Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to Laura Bush, said having the president’s wife on his overseas trips is always welcomed — by both the White House and the host country — because she can carry out a different type of diplomacy.
“They can focus on different things and, between the two of them, really spread a lot of goodwill,” said McBride, who heads a first ladies’ project at American University.
When Mrs. Obama does travel with the president, she often gets as much — and occasionally more — local media coverage.