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Michelle Obama: A first lady undercover and carving her own path

Michelle Obama: A portrait of a first lady who's transforming the job, shopping at Petco herself, and reaching out to Washington DC's black community.

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She must once again find her footing in the part of the job she hates the most—campaigning--but one she happens to excel at. "She has always been remarkably effective because no matter where you live or where you come from, you can relate to her," says White House official Stephanie Cutter, who worked closely with Michelle in 2008. "She conveys the same set of values and experiences families all over the country live by."

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So reluctant has Michelle been to raise her profile that it's been easy to forget what a ferocious asset she was in the 2008 campaign. Toward the end, thousands of people were pushing into her rallies, shoving babies at her for photos, and mimicking her J.Crew clothes.

Coming off that huge success, Michelle startled the political establishment when she announced that she would limit her public appearances so she could tend to her family. (Her staff concedes that her initial declaration of working three days a week has been impossible to maintain.) The president's strategists say privately they would have liked her to do some heavier political lifting over the past two years, but that she's not someone who can be pushed. "She was always a reluctant campaigner," says a West Wing staffer who has witnessed some of the machinations to coax the first lady into making more political appearances. "She demands a level of thinking-through that can be taxing on the staff."

Ultimately, members of her staff say, she had no interest in lurching from crisis to crisis as presidential advisers see fit. "She wasn't going to be always doing some one-off trip because a congressman needed to be stroked," says someone close to her, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. -Michelle's hesitation to leverage her popularity for political gain apparently drove former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel crazy during last year's hectic legislative maneuvering and midterm elections.

IN PICTURES: What Michelle is wearing

"I think she's willing to do things, but she's not someone you send out with talking points as an adjunct spokesman for the government," says David Axelrod, the Obama strategist who recently left the White House to work on the campaign and who has known her for nine years.

Meanwhile, outside allies and advisers have encouraged Michelle's staff to push the envelope beyond her two signature issues—childhood obesity and helping military families—and raise her profile.

he is heeding some of that advice with her June 21 trip to Africa. Mindful of the negative publicity she generated last year with her luxury vacation to Spain, the staff has jampacked this excursion with cultural and historical significance, such as a keynote address to the Young African Leaders Forum and a visit to Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela was kept in isolation for nearly three decades for opposing his country's harsh segregation policies. (A meeting with Mandela, 92, is uncertain given his fragile health.)

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