What’s it like to be Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, or “Big Gretch,” as the sassy online memes proclaim, these days?
My guess is: as good as it can get for a political leader. She and the Democrats are in full control of the state’s major offices and both houses of the legislature.
Still, today’s journalism requires almost every positive assessment to be followed by a but—what if something bad happens, politically or personally? Remember that extremist plot to kidnap her, or the assault on the capitol in Lansing by armed militias? Chilling.
Right now, Whitmer is coping with the United Auto Workers strike against the Big Three automakers, still the symbol of Michigan industry. And Bridge Michigan, a statewide news site, warns: “As Whitmer’s profile rises, so too does scrutiny.”
So, what follows about Gretchen Whitmer is almost all positive. If you need a list of perils, well, we all face some, and so does she.
In the past eight months or so, Whitmer has been the subject of 17 profiles in national publications, says her communications director. In one July week, she received a full New Yorker profile as well as a New York Times Style-section story that somehow managed a connection to this summer’s Barbie movie phenomenon.
Those profiles were invariably accompanied by photographs of Whitmer. She is, in acceptable 2023 descriptive language, striking. O.K., I’ll just say it—she’s glamorous. At the age of 52, she is often described as having the looks of a 1940s or 1950s Hollywood movie star. Sure, if the star was also a veteran politician who has proven a formidable vote-getter and as successful a progressive policymaker as the Democrats have anywhere in the country.
All this attention to the governor, who won a landslide victory for her second term in 2022 and who cannot run again, has inevitably led to a consensus that she should be a presidential contender in 2028. As for 2024, she is a national co-chair of the Biden re-election campaign, which means the presidency issue is off the proverbial interview table, for now.
But given that as of 2027 Whitmer will be, in sports parlance, a free agent, “What next?” is the uppermost question pretty much wherever the governor’s future is a topic.
Gretchen Whitmer is described as having the looks of a 1940s or 1950s Hollywood movie star. Sure, if the star was also a veteran politician who has proven as successful a progressive policymaker as the Democrats have anywhere in the country.
As it happens, on August 30, Whitmer took to the podium at the Lansing Shuffle—a waterfront venue in the state capital that features a food hall, an entertainment space, and, apparently (though I didn’t see them), shuffleboard courts—to give a speech called “What’s Next?” The subject was her legislative priorities for the months ahead, while she can still rely on her two-seat majority in the Michigan House—at least until local elections in November.
The last legislative session was a bonanza of successful bills on popular social issues, including a pro-labor repeal of “right to work” laws, codification of L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights, and measures to offset the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which ended the national guarantee of abortion rights. There were broadly framed proposals on paid medical and family leave, a goal of 100 percent clean energy, improvements to Obamacare, the lowering of prescription-drug costs, and the protection of election workers from harassment.
If this all sounds similar to the Biden national agenda, no surprise. No surprise, either, that the somewhat battered state Republicans called the speech “left-wing” and other predictable insults.
Given that as of 2027 Whitmer will be, in sports parlance, a free agent, “What next?” is the uppermost question pretty much wherever the governor’s future is a topic.
I attended the event, joining an enthusiastic crowd of politicians from across the state, staff members, and the state media (in Michigan, as elsewhere, depleted in numbers and, I’m told, influence). Republicans were invited and promised reserved seats, but I later read that only one state representative showed up and was available to offer instant criticism.
Before Whitmer spoke, I was taken to the holding room to ask the governor a few questions on behalf of AIR MAIL’s global readership. We discussed her first run as governor, when her mantra was “Fix the damn roads!” (I can attest that the Michigan byways were below standard.) “I was surprised at how well that worked for people,” she told me. “Really, in so many ways politics is about the fundamentals.” Roads are still a work in progress.
In meeting with the governor, I hoped to get a sense of how she carries her celebrity, of her ambitions, and of what it feels like to be a comer in the waning years of the national political gerontocracy. I couldn’t expect to—and didn’t—get any revelations. She was shaped as a state legislator for 14 years, coming from a politically engaged family. She went to Michigan State for her undergraduate and law degrees. She married, had two children, divorced, and re-married.
“Really, in so many ways politics is about the fundamentals.”
In 2019, she shared publicly the experience of having been sexually assaulted during her freshman year at Michigan State 30 years earlier. After the birth of her first child, she also had to contend with her mother’s fatal brain cancer. In other words, a celebrity she may well be now while also being someone who knows the travails of life’s passages.
When I encounter someone who has navigated successfully from essentially an ordinary background to the pinnacle of whatever field they are in—politics, sports, entertainment, scholarship, the arts—I ask when and how they realized they have unusual potential.
There was no epiphany, from what I could gather. At every stage Whitmer looked around and said something akin to “I can do this,” and when the expectation was that she could not, she went ahead anyway. Whitmer’s communications director, who is my friend and was able to squeeze me into a crowded schedule for the big speech, called it her boss’s “grace and grit.” That seems to me the right caption, from what I saw and heard.
Such grace and grit are nowhere to be found in Michigan’s G.O.P., once a pillar of the Republican establishment, now a fractious mess. The MAGA takeover of what was until recently considered a swing state in national politics led to a rout in the 2022 elections. At the moment, 16 or so G.O.P. operatives have been indicted on felony charges for their role as fake electors after the 2020 presidential election.
The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have recently covered the disarray, with the party’s coffers nearly empty and a recent state Republican committee meeting devolving into a physical tussle among some attendees, resulting in injuries.
The retirement of U.S. senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, means that there will be an open seat in 2024. Representative Elissa Slotkin has announced her candidacy for the nomination to succeed Stabenow. I was at a campaign stop Slotkin made in Benton Harbor, Michigan, in early summer. Before politics she was in the C.I.A. and the Pentagon. Her grandfather was one of the founders of Hygrade Food Products, the company that created Ball Park Franks—which explains how she came to spend many years on a family farm in Holly, Michigan.
Slotkin’s manner in the House is no-nonsense moderate. She definitely has something that Gretchen Whitmer does not: foreign-policy experience. If punditry is to be believed and Whitmer is on the way to a national candidacy, she’ll need to get some background in handling the foreign portfolio. For now, Michigan’s interest in China revolves around bringing industry and jobs to the state—presumably at China’s expense.
The demands of the White House are vastly greater, especially in taking on national security—and all the threats inherent in a world that guarantees crises pretty much wherever the Oval Office directs its attention.
For now, however, no ifs, ands, or buts. See Gretchen run.
Peter Osnos is a journalist and the founder of PublicAffairs. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, Would You Believe… The Helsinki Accords Changed the World?, and he writes a Substack column called Peter Osnos Platform