It’s 7:00 a.m., and the line is already forming outside the Environmental Protection Agency. The attraction? First lady Michelle Obama, who is due to appear before an audience of EPA employees late in the morning – a crowd that would swell to 1,100, the White House said.
One by one, Mrs. Obama is dropping by federal agencies around Washington to give a pep talk and dispense hugs, a gesture that has sent local Obamamania in only one direction: Up.
When asked, workers can barely articulate what it is about Michelle Obama that has drawn them out on a cold morning and away from their desks (with permission, of course) to see the new first lady.
“She’s a star, and I thought it would be fun to see her,” said EPA contract specialist Ross Mill as he waited for last Thursday’s show.
Would he have come over for a past first lady? “Probably not,” he says. “I don’t even know why.”
Despite all the nation’s pressing problems, one bright spot for the Obama administration is the running narrative about the family – Michelle, the girls, the grandma in residence, the soon-to-be adopted dog – Portuguese water dog or Labradoodle? Still no decision.
Especially in such tough times, it’s pure escapist fare.
That the Michelle piece of the story has been so positive may come as a surprise. During the campaign, she made some missteps, saying, for example, that “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country.” Conservative magazines tried to frame her as the “angry black woman,” perhaps as a way to get to Barack when he seemed impervious to being attacked as the “angry black man.”
A week after the inauguration, NPR commentator Juan Williams, speaking on Fox News, called her a potential liability to her husband. “She’s got this Stokely-Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going,” he said, referring to a leader of the 1960s black power movement. Her instinct, he said, was to “blame America.”
Mr. Williams’s comments were particularly eyebrow-raising, since he is hardly an arch-conservative. And as an African-American, he has made clear his pride in seeing the first black first family occupy the White House.
But his charge hardly stuck. Of recent first ladies, going back to Nancy Reagan, Michelle Obama has the highest initial favorable ratings. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll shows her at 49 percent favorable, 5 percent unfavorable, and 44 percent undecided.
No Hillary Clinton
One aspect of Obama’s postelection rollout is clear: She is no Hillary Clinton. Though both are Ivy League-trained lawyers who came out of high-powered careers when their husbands were elected president, Obama has assiduously avoided the appearance of involvement in policy. At one of her agency visits, referring to the administration as “we,” she quickly corrected herself.
Instead, Obama has cast herself as “mom in chief,” with her top priority getting her young daughters settled at school and into a routine. She has also been fulfilling her promise to get out into the city, not only working her way through the agency visits, but also visiting schools, taking in cultural events, and inviting local students into the White House. And it’s not just little ones getting invites. Before a recent black tie dinner, Obama brought in students from the local Academie de Cuisine to view preparations in the White House kitchen.
Going out to eat is also a regular feature of Obama-world. She’s had lunch with Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty at Georgia Brown’s, a favorite for upscale Southern comfort food with a diverse clientele. And she’s gone out for burgers with her staff at Five Guys.
There’s a feel, though, that this is just Obama’s opening act. At some point, the “getting to know you” phase will play out, and it may be that dipping into policy feels natural – and maybe even not too risky. She was, after all, a top executive at a Chicago hospital.
During the campaign, Obama held regular women’s roundtables, not only selling her husband’s candidacy to voters but also providing feedback to his team. Before and after the election, she has paid special attention to the needs of military families.
One longtime observer of first ladies is surprised by how smoothly Obama’s debut in “office” has gone – given historic sensitivities to how presidents’ wives handle themselves. The agency visits could well have backfired, says James Rosebush, who served as Nancy Reagan’s chief of staff.
“We could have heard, ‘Who elected her?’” Mr. Rosebush says. Instead, she gets credit for boosting morale in agencies that have been maligned for years.
“She has the most important ingredient, and that’s authenticity,” he says. “She knows herself well enough, you can see she’s not being forced into any rote role or package.”
She even seems comfortable in her role as fashion icon, gracing the covers of Vogue and People magazines and making the careers of obscure designers by wearing their creations.
She has also shown how inexpensive, off-the-rack fashions – see J. Crew – can work just as well during lean economic times.
Then there are her long, well-toned arms, and the decision to go sleeveless at her husband’s speech to a joint session of Congress last month (in winter, no less!) and in her official White House portrait – a striking shot of her in a black sheath and dual strand of pearls.
Those bare arms
For women around the watercooler, Obama’s look – particularly her “right to bare arms,” as countless columns have declared – has launched many a conversation. Since her debut as a national figure, Obama has been likened to a modern-day Jacqueline Kennedy, the last first lady to have such impact on matters of style. But in the end, Obama is ... herself.
Outside the EPA building, after Obama’s appearance there last week, employees scurry back to work, some talking excitedly on their cellphones.
Cathy McLaughlin, an EPA employee in Las Vegas, was pleased to be here on business when the first lady visited.
“I’m just so happy that they support the EPA and climate change and environmental protection,” she says. “She seems like one of the people, more than Hillary ever did.”
Does she pay much attention to Obama’s hair and wardrobe? “Not so much,” she says. “I’m more impressed with her as a person.” But, she adds, she just got off the phone with a friend who couldn’t make it over, “and she wanted to know what she was wearing.”