Exactly one year after announcing her long-awaited “Be Best” platform, Melania Trump is scheduled to return to the Rose Garden on Tuesday to push the campaign forward.
Trump unveiled her somewhat grandiose official plan, a three-pillar initiative aimed at issues facing children: well-being, social media and opioid abuse, after 16 months of serving as first lady.
“I feel strongly that as adults, we can and should be best at educating our children about the importance of a healthy and balanced life,” said Trump at the announcement, speaking to an audience that included her husband, President Donald Trump, seated in the front row.
One year in, Trump intends to push forward with her platform, and it is anticipated the first lady will reveal more plans for Be Best’s sophomore year, according to her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead of any announcements she will make at the [anniversary] celebration, but we have expanded two of the three pillars based on information and lessons learned over the past year,” Grisham tells CNN. “Her expansion of the opioids pillar will now include speaking to children of all ages, and her expansion of the social media pillar will now focus on online safety as a whole.”
Trump has put her focus in the opioid sector primarily on Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, a little-discussed but medically challenging side effect of the country’s drug crisis, affecting babies born into addiction. Trump has made several learning trips to children’s hospitals and care centers directly focused on NAS programs, including a visit last year to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and Lily’s Place in Huntington, West Virginia, a non-profit facility that focuses on infant recovery and family therapy.
As for online safety, much of the American public zeroed in on Be Best when it was first unveiled on the unavoidable link between Trump’s championing of online kindness and the President’s frequent use of Twitter to name-call, bully, and otherwise impose negativity. By way of including the topic in Be Best, the first lady was essentially implying it’s not OK to do what her husband does, and, further, that despite continuing to point out the irony of the topic and the behavior, the first lady intended to forge ahead.
“It is not news or surprising to me that critics and the media have chosen to ridicule me for speaking out on this issue, and that’s OK,” said Trump during a speech in November of last year at the Family Online Safety Institute conference. “I remain committed to tackling this topic because it will provide a better world for our children, and I hope that, like I do, you will consider using their negative words as motivation to do all you can to bring awareness and understanding about responsible online behavior.”
Clearly, Trump cared very little that there were cries of hypocrisy – she was delineating between her platform, and her husband’s penchant for a Twitter battle. Grisham has told CNN Trump is “well aware” of the peripheral challenges involved with tackling cyberbullying, as the leader of the free world so often uses the platform of Twitter for just that.
“I would hope most people in this country are proud that they have a strong and independent first lady who only has the best interests of children at heart,” Grisham told CNN last August.
“Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign was effective in part because it complemented her husband’s main objective, which was overhauling the health care system,” says CNN contributor Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.
“It’s smart to leverage what the West Wing is doing for an East Wing initiative because that way there’s no real competition, it’s more about working together in tandem and using the first lady’s power, which is very real, to make change,” she says.
Brower says that while Trump’s agenda might not on its surface appear to succinctly dovetail in certain areas with those of the President, the first lady does utilize strategic partnerships with other parts of the Trump administration.
“You do see this in terms of Kellyanne Conway and her work on opioid addiction and how she’s worked with Melania,” says Brower. Trump has also aligned Be Best with the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Be Best funding comes partly from the first lady’s office’s allotted budget, with support from other government agencies, says Grisham.
Yet the first-name basis the public enjoyed with Obama’s “Let’s Move,” or former first lady Laura Bush’s literacy campaign, or even Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug initiative, has remained somewhat elusive for Trump and Be Best. The announcement of the platform was overrun shortly thereafter by headlines about the first lady’s health challenges concerning a kidney procedure she had a week later. Similarly, news cycles in general are often filled with stories about the chaos plaguing the West Wing, be it the Russia investigation, staff turnover, or President Trump’s own bombastic style. Breaking through to a wider audience for brand recognition, while perhaps not a concern of Melania Trump’s, is certainly a challenging endeavor in the current political climate.
Like most things she does, however, Melania Trump remains publicly unaffected. Unconcerned with whether or not Be Best would be better served if she did the talk show circuit or made YouTube videos, places in which Michelle Obama found success marketing her initiatives, Trump is committed to rolling out Be Best her own way, at her own pace, clearly unhampered by a need to breakthrough to the media, and not bothered by the President’s activities casting too broad a shadow over her efforts. Trump, says Grisham, cares most about hearing directly from children and families affected by issues of health and well-being, or social media mores, or how opioids can destroy a home.
“In just this past year, Mrs. Trump has visited several schools, childrens’ organizations and hospitals,” says Grisham. “She has been to 15 states to promote and highlight some of the successful work being done by so many on behalf of children. She has used every opportunity she’s had – whether it be with foreign visits, speaking opportunities, policy briefings and roundtables – to speak on the importance of supporting our children so they grow up to be happy and healthy adults who will contribute positively to their communities and the world.”
There remain those critics who wonder if Be Best is too complex, and too overreaching, especially for a political neophyte first lady whose staff is a scant dozen people, only a handful of whom are focused on policy issues. Obama and Bush both had more than 20 staffers on their East Wing teams, many of those dedicated to pushing and enhancing multiple platform agendas, including Obama’s Joining Forces and Let Girls Learn, and Bush’s commitment to working with women in Afghanistan.
“I think [Be Best] is well-intentioned, and it showcases how well the first lady does when she interacts with children, but I think it’s too broad and unfocused,” says Brower, who adds it was first lady Lady Bird Johnson who, as a modern first lady, set the bar at selecting one specific topic of interest; for Johnson, that was highway beautification. “If Trump could drill down on one part of it, like opioid addiction and babies born to mothers who are addicted, it would be more successful. Being single-mindedly focused would also serve to help people see her contributions to this administration, which I think get lost amid the turbulence,” adds Brower.
In a statement, Trump says Tuesday’s announcement about the ongoing path of Be Best will “set plans for expanding the initiative in the coming year as we work towards building a greater future for our children.”
She remains committed to her multi-pronged platform, which while disparate in topic, centers on children. According to a news release about Tuesday’s Be Best anniversary event, in addition to the first lady, there will be three special speakers, “each representing one of the three pillars of her initiative, and other guests who embody what Be Best is all about.”
“I do think Melania is so fiercely independent that it might be difficult to make a change to her approach,” says Brower of how year two of Be Best might not look fundamentally different from year one. In terms of promoting a legislative agenda tied to Be Best, Grisham says the first lady and her staff aren’t ruling out getting involved in more complex political goals.
“As we work with agencies, groups and various stakeholders, our office continuously monitors legislation, private sector initiatives, and the work that our agencies are doing,” says Grisham. “As appropriate and if it makes sense in terms of aligning with Be Best, Mrs. Trump will support, sign on to, endorse, those initiatives.”
Grisham isn’t concerned about Trump recalibrating Be Best, something she and the first lady both underscore hasn’t been, nor will be, necessary.
“Talking to children, parents, teachers, medical professionals, government and foreign officials and the country about the importance of character education, online safety, and the dangers of opioid abuse are all top of mind for Mrs. Trump in all that she does,” Grisham says.