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.

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Mundy points to one example of Obama's acknowledging his wife's influence. In July 2009, a longtime Obama friend, African-American Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., was arrested (the charges were later dropped) at his home in Cambridge, Mass., by a white police sergeant, James Crowley. A neighbor had called in a possible burglary in progress after Gates was seen struggling with his front door. When a reporter asked the president for his reaction, he said the police had acted "stupidly." But after a discussion with Michelle and some close friends, Obama reconsidered both men's accounts and actions, leading to a more nuanced assessment. The president would later hold the famous "beer summit" in the Rose Garden with Gates, Crowley, and Vice President Joe Biden.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

With her breezy style and family-centered initiatives, Michelle Obama has generated a wave of goodwill for herself, and her popularity remains high. At minimum, she has shattered a historic barrier as the country's first African-American first lady. Her use of the latest Internet technology and social networking will also give her a platform to reach more Americans directly than ever before. But the jury is still out as to whether she can mobilize millions behind her anti-obesity campaign and other issues. The only president's wife to make headlines for her "well-toned" arms now will see how far those arms can reach.

Historian and author Betty Boyd Caroli frequently appears on national television and the BBC to discuss the role of presidents' wives in American politics.

This story on Michelle Obama is reprinted from a U.S. News & World Report special collector's edition on the fascinating women who influence America's presidents and their times.

Learn more about Dolley Madison's wartime courage, Eleanor Roosevelt's advocacy for the poor, Jackie Kennedy's glamour, Hillary Clinton's transformation from first lady to presidential candidate, and others. Plus: romances and troubled marriages, wives who sought power or shunned it.

America's First Ladies is available now on newsstands or may be ordered online.

  • See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.
  • See photos of Michelle Obama.
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