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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It is a move in the direction toward more substantive exposure, but still shy of embracing the traditional public role that some would like to see.Skip to next paragraph
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First ladies essentially step into these unpaid jobs with no official duties and work to carve out an agenda that at best dovetails with the president's—or at least doesn't get in his way. History shows that finding the right issues and tone can be a tricky effort. Nancy Reagan was viewed as a vapid California socialite until she latched onto her signature "Just Say No" campaign to discourage teenage drug use. By contrast, Hillary Clinton drew harsh criticism for leading her husband's failed drive to reform health care. Michelle has come across as neither the doe-eyed adoring wife nor the intense political adviser. But she has been fully engaged in shaping her own image and goals.
Michelle's staff of 22 knows not to cram her schedule with events that don't serve some larger strategic agenda. "What's the purpose?" she frequently demands of aides when presented with a proposal. "Am I value-added?" Once she settles on a schedule, her staff says she will spend hours and even days preparing for one appearance. For a major speech, like her address to West Point families at last month's commencement weekend, she will hand-edit multiple drafts. Staff will then drag a lectern into her office, where she will rehearse the speech with a teleprompter for days. "She demands a lot of herself," says Axelrod.
Despite her commitment to controlling her agenda, there still are plenty of traditional obligations that can't be avoided, and at times the first lady may have unwittingly conveyed ambivalence. Congressional wives were disappointed in how a series of luncheons was handled for the 500-plus spouses: the women were invited alphabetically, which, several said, showed no effort to create an interesting mix of guests. "I went with the Ks," said one wife of a Democratic congressman. "I barely said hello to her." This woman contrasted the lunch with a similar event hosted by Laura Bush, who obligingly took a group of the wives upstairs to see the Lincoln Bedroom--and then posed for pictures with each of them in the room. "I admire what Michelle is doing with all her public-service efforts," said the spouse, "but Laura was warm and made you feel like you were visiting her home."
Michelle's social life has largely revolved around her tight-knit group of girlfriends, such as Jocelyn Frye, who met her at Harvard Law School and now works in the White House; Angela Acree, a Princeton classmate; and Sharon Malone, a physician and the wife of Attorney General Eric Holder.
Malone, who has become a social friend of the first lady in the past two years, sees Michelle as simply trying to "create a little bit of space to keep herself sane."
"You know there's a playbook in Washington about what you're supposed to do—well, she's not following the playbook," says Malone. "She's doing it the way she wants to do it by being very involved in the community."