First ladies have taken up the torch for a wide range of issues. For Laura Bush, it was education. For Hillary Clinton, healthcare took center stage. But the road to finding a meaningful platform isn't always clear.
Susan Sher, who served as the Chief of Staff to Michelle Obama, sat on a panel of former aides to the first ladies Thursday at the National Archives. She says Obama started out, like many others before her, unaware of just how much of an impact she could make in her new role.
"This was a woman who had never actually moved to Washington. Her husband had been a state senator and then a U.S. Senator so it was a totally new experience," Sher says. During President Obama's transition into office, Sher says the first lady engaged in many conversations about what issues she would tackle. Sher says Obama's concern for veterans quickly rose to the top of the list of priorities. But ironing out all of the details of what would eventually become the "Joining Forces" initiative took time. [Vets: Michelle's Best First Lady]
"During the campaign she met with many, many military families and knew that was going to be a key part of what she did.," Sher said. "It took ... a good year after the president was in office, before she really figured out what was the best way to help military families."
Joining Forces has morphed into an advocacy organization for troops with a particular emphasis on giving back to veterans' families.
But Sher says Obama had many interests. And as the first lady adjusted to life in the White House, Sher says a garden project transformed into much more.
In April of 2009, when Bancroft Elementary School fifth graders visited the White House to help Obama harvest her garden, Sher says something just clicked.
"She had this sort of vague idea about healthy food, but [the Let's Move initiative] began with watching the expressions on the children's faces from Bancroft School," Sher says. "And, appreciating how little many children know about the food, where it actually comes from, what lettuce looks like when it still is in the ground." [See photos of Michelle Obama.]
It took that garden to see that the American people were ready to talk about getting healthy and Obama answered the call with "Let's Move."
"I think it is still evolving, the way she can make a difference," Sher says.
As the first African American first lady, Sher says there is no doubt the Michelle Obama also feels a responsibility to young women who face economic and social barriers.
"When she sees girls who come from the inner city and are not privileged she feels it is so important to say to them: 'I didn't just start thinking I was going to be the first lady. I came from a situation that wasn't much different than yours," Sher says. "There is no question that every first lady is a role model, but I think that it is also true that [Michelle Obama] feels a special responsibility to not just African American girls, but young people who don't have privileged backgrounds to understand what they can do."