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How Michelle Obama's 'Tonight Show' appearance reflects her legacy as first lady

Michelle Obama made her last television appearance as first lady as a guest on 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' Wednesday night.

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks during an interview with host Jimmy Fallon on 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in New York.
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Michelle Obama made her final talk show appearance as first lady on Wednesday night, capping off eight years of televised anecdotes, pranks – and dancing.

The self-described "mom-in-chief" joined host Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show" to pen humorous thank you notes to her husband and others, surprise a few unsuspecting fans, and discuss her final "emotional" days in the White House. 

It was the latest of a series of lasts for the outgoing first lady – following a widely-praised final speech on the importance of education – that have cemented the multi-faceted legacy of Mrs. Obama as an accomplished trailblazer, accessible maternal figure, and symbolic milestone for a changing America. 

"Obama’s farewell notably differs from her predecessor’s – not just in the circumstances of her departure, but in, perhaps more significantly, the aim of their legacy-building: The legacy she is building is hers," wrote Megan Garber for The Atlantic following the first lady's "Tonight Show" appearance. "Obama, in her recent media appearances – in a soaring speech, in a fantastic interview with Oprah – hasn’t merely been burnishing her husband’s place in history. She has been establishing her own." 

In one of the more talked-about segments of her "Tonight Show" appearance, Obama surprised fans who had prepared heartfelt messages for her. As the fans, one by one, told a portrait of the first lady what her time in the White House meant to them, Obama emerged from behind a curtain to hug her tearful supporters and thank them for their messages. 

"First lady Michelle Obama, thank you for making me a more confident woman," one told the first lady's portrait. "You have helped me and inspired me to walk in my purpose." 

"Because of you, I know that my race does not define who I am or what I can accomplish," said another. "For years, you have shown our nation countless times, that through dignity, compassion, and respect, we can overcome any hardships." 

"Her power is a symbolic power," Nell Irvin Painter, an emeritus professor of American history at Princeton University, told the Washington Post in December, noting the way Obama "has conducted herself as first lady. She has grace, there is no question, but I would add elegance. It’s a kind of assurance that is also something new for a black woman in public life. She is the symbol of what an American can be. Michelle Obama has presented a universal American identity." 

Obama's ability to maintain a sense of dignity, compassion, and respect in the face of hardships – particularly the kinds of hardships unique to the first black first lady in the White House – are particularly noteworthy and appealing to supporters, observers say. 

"She presented such a calm in the middle of a storm in that she always kept her poise, her dignity, kept her chin up, even under unprecedented criticism of herself and her husband," says Katherine Jellison, professor of history at Ohio University and an expert on US first ladies, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "And because she is someone who has come from pretty humble origins herself, I think she can relate to the average person in ways that not all first ladies have been able to do." 

The fun-loving, relatable image that Obama often presented in interviews and media appearances, from dancing with Ellen Degeneres to rapping about getting a college education with Saturday Night Live star Jay Pharoah, created an air of accessibility that can be difficult for first ladies to achieve, experts say. Karen O'Connor, professor of political science and founder of the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington, D.C., describes Obama as "everyone's cool mom." 

"From her outing to Target, her numerous forays into the District, to her down home attitude, she's been the First Lady of D.C. as well as the nation," Professor O'Connor says in an email to the Monitor. "She was down to earth, truly engaged, and embraced her role with seriousness of purpose but was always trying to interject some fun." 

Obama's "cool mom" image may also stem from her focus on motherhood throughout her tenure as first lady – a move that drew criticism from some who argued that her "mom-in-chief" title detracted from the significance of her professional accomplishments. But as her time in the White House comes to an end, critiques of Obama's maternal persona appear to have quieted, notes Sara Hayden, professor of communication studies at the University of Montana, in a piece for The Conversation.

"Perhaps this is simply a sign of respect, or of not wanting to criticize a popular first lady at the end of her term," Professor Hayden writes. "Or perhaps, it is a sign that Obama has brought an African-American understanding of motherhood to a wider audience, shifting the meaning of motherhood on the public stage." 

"As we move forward," she adds, "we can anticipate that women will continue to appeal to motherhood on the public stage and that the meanings of those appeals will have been profoundly affected by Michelle Obama’s eight years as our first lady and mom-in-chief." 

Beyond her persona and lifestyle choices, Obama will likely be remembered for her dedication to improving public health in America – work that is expected to continue beyond her time in the White House. 

"She was much more purposeful and much more methodical in developing her agenda then we’re accustomed to seeing," Peter Slevin, author of the 2015 biography "Michelle Obama: A Life," told Highbrow Magazine. "All first ladies have had significant projects to which they attached their name, yet she was more ambitious in doing meaningful work than her modern predecessors. She was more determined to make a difference in more disciplined and creative ways, and she’s really determined to make a difference."