US first lady Melania Trump isn’t big on public speaking. But over the course of her first year in the White House, she has been comparatively outspoken about kids. She has said that her most important job is that of being a mom to her son, Barron. She’s spoken out against cyberbullying and its effects on kids, and has made visits to children’s hospitals the focal point of many of her trips abroad, from Paris to Rome. Now, 17 months into her time as first lady, she’s announced policy priorities centered around kids and their well-being.
In a televised speech from the White House Rose Garden Monday afternoon (May 7), Trump announced the launch of her children’s initiative, “Be Best,” focused on three main pillars: ensuring their mental and physical well-being, harnessing their social media use for good, and protecting them from opioid addiction. The highly-anticipated initiative, which the first lady’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, previewed last week, aims to raise awareness about programs and institutions across the US that help vulnerable kids.
In her speech, the first lady highlighted several individuals and organizations who had been invited to the event, including a middle school bullying victim who used social media to raise awareness about the negative impact it had on her; a nonprofit in West Virginia that serves as the nation’s first infant addiction recovery clinic; and a program in a Michigan middle school that promoted “social and emotional learning, respect, inclusion and being kind,” in the first lady’s own words.
The first lady called upon leaders in the technology sector to partner with her in the fight against cyber-bullying. She also outlined her goal of raising awareness about neonatal abstinence syndrome, which affects babies born to drug addicts. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six in every 1,000 babies born in the US are now diagnosed with NAS.)
The speech, which was delivered in less than 15 minutes by a beaming first lady, was followed by president Donald Trump signing an official proclamation naming May 7th “Be Best Day.” He also gave a short speech in which he highlighted his wife’s “heartfelt” concern for children, saying: “America is truly blessed to have a first lady who is so devoted to our country and our children.”
Only time will tell whether America’s children were, in fact, blessed to have Melania Trump as their first lady, and the jury is still out on her husband’s legacy. But one has to wonder how the “Be Best” pillars line up with the president’s own words and deeds. Many, if not most, of the values that the first lady promoted as integral to a happy and healthy childhood are antithetical to the president’s behavior in and out of office.
In her speech, Melania Trump praised “respect,” “inclusion,” “emotional well-being,” and “social and self-awareness” and condemned bullying and negative online behavior. And yet her husband has repeatedly engaged in social media bullying, made inappropriate comments to and about young girls, and exhibited behavior that was less than inclusive, and definitely disrespectful, toward immigrants and Americans of different faiths and backgrounds.
It is clear that the Trumps share an affinity for kids. In many of his domestic and foreign policy decisions, the president has brought up kids and their suffering as a major motivator for action. He conjured up vivid images of babies dying from gas attacks perpetrated by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in justifying his decision to order strikes on Syria; he spoke of the addiction of an entire generation of “precious babies” when discussing his commitment to tackling the opioid crisis; and he has repeatedly appealed to lawmakers to find a solution “with heart” for the children of the Obama-era DACA program. But Trump has also doubled down on pro-gun rhetoric since the Stoneman Douglas shooting, rescinded DACA, and pledged to deport some 57,000 Hondurans and their children from the US in January 2020. As The Atlantic’s David Graham wrote in April, “Cases involving kids seem to genuinely sway the president’s views—but one thing the children cannot do is lengthen his short attention span.”
So it seems fair to say that Melania and Donald Trump have different ideas about what it means for children to be at their best. And it’s unclear how committed the president will remain in supporting his wife’s efforts. As Northwestern University journalism professor Peter Slavin, who wrote a biography about former first lady Michelle Obama, told NPR, Melania is “dealing with a White House that is not exactly good at delivering a consistent message.”