Michelle Obama Still Struggling to Define Her Role as First Lady

The first African-American first lady works find her way on the public stage.

usn_fl_frontcover.jpg
By + More

[See photos of Michelle Obama.]

The transformation began with Michelle's co-hosting the popular TV talk show The View in June 2008 and chatting with Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg, and others about her kids, her clothes, and her marriage. Eric Deggans, a St. Petersburg Times reviewer, noted that she "handled the gentle grilling . . . with practiced ease."

The image remake continued with Michelle's polished, poignant speech about her roots and Obama's at the Democratic National Convention. The makeover had an effect, Gutin observes. Michelle now was being seen in a "far more favorable light."

The photogenic Obamas entered the White House with two of the youngest children to live there since the Kennedys. Observers watched closely which initiatives Michelle would choose to pursue. She seemed initially to follow the Hillary Clinton model, focusing on policy.

On Jan. 29, 2009, she hosted an event honoring Lilly Ledbetter, the plaintiff in an employment discrimination case, for whom a new fair-pay law (giving workers more leeway to file claims against employers) was named. Michelle then gave speeches to several federal agencies, telling employees how they would benefit from the federal stimulus package. But after this initial flurry, she seemed to retreat to more traditional initiatives.

[See photos of the Obamas abroad.]

In March 2009, she invited students from nearby Bancroft Elementary School to help plant a vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House. She also began focusing on the needs of military families and visited with wounded veterans. Liza Mundy, author of Michelle: A Biography (2008), notes that these efforts may have been inspired partly by "a desire to boost her husband's credentials with the military," but Michelle could also "identify with families who had one spouse absent for long periods of time."

By the end of her first year, the first lady's popularity ratings hovered near 70 percent (far outshining her husband's), but while the president's advisers might have been happy, Michelle was not. Mundy says she complained to staff and close friends that she felt "marginalized" from the power and policymaking of the West Wing. She named a new chief of staff, Susan Sher, who, the Washington Post reported, told David Axelrod, the president's senior adviser, that when she called, "You need to get back to me right away."

The first lady then moved to launch an initiative that, if successful, would satisfy her desire to make a major impact nationally. Physicians have warned about the sharp increase of overweight children in America from 5 percent in 1970 to almost 1 in 3 today. In February 2010, Michelle officially launched Let's Move!, a campaign to end childhood obesity in one generation, saying, "We know that solving our obesity challenge won't be easy, and it won't be quick—but make no mistake about it—this problem can be solved."

[See photos of first dog Bo Obama.]

As she explained in a PBS NewsHour interview, being first lady gives her the platform "to pull all [the necessary] resources together." Let's Move!, which has its own website, www.letsmove.gov, aims to enlist parents, schools, elected officials, pediatricians, athletes, and others in a coordinated effort to encourage (and show) kids how to eat healthier and become more active. Katie McCormick-Lelyveld, the first lady's press secretary, says Michelle received several thousand questions before her first webchat, and LetsMove.gov showed "significant traffic growth" when relaunched on AOL Health and Facebook.

Gutin says Michelle's adoption of social media is smart. "Using the web and Twitter, rather than TV or interviews with print journalists, permits revising a message, deleting what she doesn't want to say. Her husband's a champion at it, and she can be very effective."

The press and the public have often criticized first ladies who seem to over-influence their husbands on policy. Though the Obamas generally avoid discussing this subject publicly, Mundy notes that Michelle's role in her husband's presidential campaign was top-level, "next to David Axelrod," so, like most of her predecessors, "she is probably an important informal adviser."