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 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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.