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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    First lady Michelle Obama poses with graduates after commencement ceremonies for the Quantico Middle/High School on the Quantico Marine Base in Quantico, Va., June 3, 2011.
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By Lois Romano

Newsweek/DailyBeast

The most recognizable woman in the world routinely ducks reporters to have what she calls a "normal" life. Hiding beneath a baseball cap, the first lady of the United States has picked through sale racks in the frenetic Tysons Corner, Va., mall with girlfriends, bought supplies for her dog at Petco using her own credit card, and dined at some of D.C.'s hippest eateries largely unrecognized. So secretive are her outings that when Washington Capitals hockey superstar Alex Ovechkin tweeted a photo in April with his arm around her at a busy Washington restaurant, media organizations were convinced it was a fake.

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Michelle Obama laid down her markers quickly and in a way that has set Washington back on its heels. The White House was not going to imprison her, the media were not going to own her, and she would not be driven by external expectations.

She was supposed to be a different kind of first lady—an Ivy League-educated, fashion-trendsetting professional who blew up the conventions of the job. No one could have imagined back in the heady days following the election that she'd declare that she would work only two or three days a week, choose a couple of politically comfortable issues, and stay out of the glare of the political spotlight. The result has been a low-key tenure that some have found to be disappointingly conventional.

IN PICTURES: What Michelle is wearing

But is it? What the chattering class has missed is that Michelle Obama, in an understated way, has in fact been transforming the job—but on her own terms. She may have disappointed the Georgetown salon set with a casual disregard for social convention and annoyed the old political-wives club by not indulging them. But she has also spent untold hours with the other Washington--consciously extending the reach of the White House into D.C.'s black community, mentoring students, and choking up when she reflects on her own success to offer hope and dreams. Later this month she will make an official trip to South Africa and Botswana to further expand her commitment to students and young leaders, education, and wellness.

In short, Michelle Obama has figured out ways to navigate the bubble while channeling her own passions and holding on to her life.

But her carefully crafted world at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is about to be challenged anew. Her husband is entering his reelection bid battling rough economic headwinds, against a GOP energized by the successes of the 2010 mid-terms. Barack Obama will need every ounce of his wife's considerable star power—she's polling 20 points ahead of her husband—to win reelection. Although the full-throttle campaign is still months away, Michelle is already traveling the country fundraising.

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."

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.)

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.

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."

The first lady has made regular visits to schools in Anacostia, one of Washington's poorest, most difficult neighborhoods. She has initiated a high-octane mentoring program, linking White House aides with urban minority high-school students—and, NEWSWEEK has learned, she presses famous entertainers eager to perform for the president at tony events for a quid pro quo: an agreement to conduct a music workshop for selected students at the White House while they are in town. In late March, Motown greats Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson worked with a couple of hundred musically gifted students from across the country. At an earlier workshop, music students found themselves jamming one afternoon with five members of the Marsalis family—New Orleans jazz royalty—under the sparkling chandeliers of the East Room.

Washington's A-listers may not have swarmed across the Obamas' threshold, but the first lady assured the middle-schoolers invited to the White House one day, "While we live here, we're your neighbors. And we want you to feel welcome at the White House."

During a recent visit to Anacostia's Ballou High School, she took questions for 30 minutes. Asked what she would tell a teen mom who hoped to go to college, Michelle said she would say, "Good for you." She advised the students to think about what kind of careers they would want. "College is no joke because it is so expensive," she said.

The visit was part of an ambitious mentoring program she has held for students in Washington, Detroit, and Denver since 2009. In D.C., she has brought together a diverse group of female high-voltage celebrities who fan out to public schools. Students are later invited back to the White House to mingle with stars such as Geena Davis, Hilary Swank, Alicia Keyes, and Michelle Kwan.

"Nothing in my life's path ever would have predicted that I would be standing here as the first African-American first lady," Michelle has often told inner-city students, her voice breaking with emotion. "I wasn't raised with wealth or resources or any social standing to speak of."

From the beginning, Michelle seemed intent to play down her career credentials. A Princeton and Harvard--educated lawyer who held a high-powered job at the University of Chicago Medical Center, she promptly referred to herself as the mom in chief after Barack was elected.

In staffing her office, she surrounded herself with friends and some politically inexperienced loyalists from the campaign or Chicago, which led to a rocky start and some drama.

She has been through three chiefs of staff, three social secretaries, and two communications directors. Her first chief of staff had little management experience and was gone after a few months, after she and social secretary Desiree Rogers locked horns. Rogers, a glamorous Chicago acquaintance, was eventually canned when her profile became higher than the first lady's--never a good idea.

Susan Sher, a friend and former boss in Chicago, stepped in as chief of staff to help at a critical time and was well respected but wanted to return to her husband in Chicago. In February another friend from Chicago, Democratic activist and attorney Tina Tchen, moved over from the West Wing, an appointment applauded by senior presidential aides.

On a personal level as well, Michelle has kept her Chicago ties close. She moved her mother to Washington to help care for daughters Sasha and Malia; Miriam Robinson rides to school with the girls daily in an unmarked SUV. Michelle also brought to Washington from Chicago her long-term personal trainer, Cornell McClellan (who now has a robust White House clientele), and the family's personal chef, Sam Kass.

Michelle's reluctance to expand her circle may stem from the awkward early days of the 2008 campaign when opponents portrayed her as unpatriotic, snobby, and a caricature of an angry black woman. The president's advisers now candidly admit that she was poorly served by the campaign. Conservative commentators, who carefully steered clear of racial references when it came to Barack, had no such reservations about stirring up racial stereotypes about his wife. Eventually, Axelrod hired Stephanie Cutter to bolster Michelle's image and help her shape her passions into an agenda. She parlayed her interest in childhood nutrition into Let's Move, a national campaign to deal with an obesity epidemic among young people.

Michelle's other signature issue--helping military families--first attracted her attention while she campaigned in Iowa. She found herself in small towns comforting wives whose husbands had been deployed to Iraq and mothers who had lost sons. Once in the White House, she spent months consulting with families and veterans about their needs.

"We believe that this is what you deserve from us," she told the 200 military wives and mothers at the White House for a Mother's Day tea, her voice quavering. "Thank you for your strength." For now, Michelle has made clear that along with her mentoring efforts, these two issues will keep her busy and fulfilled professionally for the foreseeable future.

But on a personal note, her closest aides confide that there is one place in D.C. that she has been desperate to visit for another taste of life outside the White House--but so far it has not been possible. "She really wants to go to Target," says one confidante. "We have to make that happen."

Lois Romano is a senior writer for Newsweek/Daily Beast based in Washington. She was a longtime political writer and columnist for The Washington Post, covering presidential campaigns and Washington powerbrokers.

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