After her husband's historic victory, it emerged that Michelle Obama saw her role as first lady as being a wife and mother first. In terms of visions, it was traditional, nonthreatening, and practically ho-hum. But it has proved a whopping understatement for the world's newest A-lister, a woman whose debut has been punctuated with exclamation points.
The 45-year-old Ivy League lawyer and product of Chicago's working class has captured many hearts by hewing to that deceptively quaint ethos while displaying other sides: fearless fashionista, fun-loving hostess, protocol-stretching diplomat, amateur organic gardener, cost-savvy decorator, West Wing surrogate, and, in particular, inspirer-in-chief.
"My first lady and yours" is how Barack Obama now introduces his wife of 16 years as she has skyrocketed in polls, surpassing him in favorable ratings while silencing old chatter about whether she was helping or hurting him. A recent poll by Gallup found 72 percent had a positive view of her, up from 43 percent in June 2008. It was low then in part because of campaign missteps. She once said, "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country," leaving critics to question her patriotism.
When the Obamas moved daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, and Michelle's mother, 71, into the White House, the first spouse set the bar low, cannily so. She said she wanted to get the girls settled, get to know the city, and build her own team. Practically overnight, the confident, 5-foot, 11-inch daughter of a Chicago water department pump operator attracted new admirers, not to mention making cameras swoon as she draped herself in look-at-me shades like celadon and fuchsia and bared enviably buff biceps.
White House makeover. While she's followed the traditional avenues by visiting inner-city school kids, paying homage to the troops, wining and dining members of Congress, and wooing foreign dignitaries, she's done it her way. At the White House, protocol is looser, parties are hipper (and more frequent), and pop artists from Stevie Wonder to Fergie are paying calls. In a nod to the country's worst economic crisis in 80 years, the first lady turned away a stipend of $100,000 to redo the family's private quarters, saying the Obamas will dig into their own bank account.
It's said that she hasn't loosened house rules for the girls, who attend the exclusive Sidwell Friends School, make their own beds, and turn in at 8 p.m., a lights-out that is relaxed when friends visit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for sleepovers.
She is by no means universally admired. Forty-two-year-old Terrilynne Butler of Gaithersburg, Md., isn't crazy about Obama's "out there, outspoken" ways. "I kind of prefer Laura Bush—the supportive, gentle, wind-beneath-my-wings-type person I prefer a first lady to be," Butler says. The mother of six was one of many who criticized the White House for changing the way tickets for the annual Easter Egg Roll were distributed. After getting tickets in past years by waiting in line for hours, Butler and others blame the online system for foiling their bids to attend this year.
The role of first ladies evolves and enlarges over time as they find their comfort zone and zero in on their interests. Already, though, a practiced observer and self-described Republican, Letitia Baldrige, who was Jacqueline Kennedy's top aide, is gushing over the East Wing's latest occupant. Talking about Obama, Baldrige says: "She's attractive, she's well educated, she's charming, she's good-looking and all of that, plus she's the first African-American first lady. I mean, that's a socko combination. She's the hottest story in the world. She really is."
Baldrige approves of Obama's opening act, which has seen her "spread out in all directions," since inevitably "she's going to find out one of those directions is par-ticularly important to her. It's going to get her heart."
As Obama's aides tell it, she's already had an early epiphany. It happened April 2 at an inner-city, all-girls school in London, the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Language School, a largely minority facility where about 1 in 5 students was born to refugees. There, Obama described her humble beginnings on Chicago's South Side and pointed out that neither of her parents went to college. She spoke of her late father, who persisted at work despite multiple sclerosis and "never complained" even after it got hard for him to dress himself and to walk. And she said she thrived because she was loved, nurtured, and educated. "I never cut class," she told the girls, who were moved to tears. "I loved getting A's. I liked being smart. I liked being on time. I liked getting my work done. I thought being smart was cooler than anything in the world."