Unscripted moments. After she left, says her press secretary, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, Obama remarked: "I want to do those everywhere we go." It was something Lelyveld had heard before, after the first lady's visit to a school in Washington's inner-city Anacostia section.
Another key goal is supporting the families of those who wear the military uniform. Her first solo, out-of-town trip as first lady was in March, when she dropped in on Fort Bragg, N.C. Cellphone cameras lit up as she hugged troops, read to their children, and met their spouses. "Military family members have their own special courage and strength," Obama said. She came away bothered to learn some troops' families were getting by on food stamps. Aides say more such visits are in the works.
As Obama becomes accustomed to her singular role on the world stage, one-on-one interviews with the press are rare. Meanwhile, some of her public outings are so tightly controlled that Queen Elizabeth might be giving her tips. Consider a 15-minute foray in April to the Department of Homeland Security, one of numerous cabinet agencies she's hit. Standing before five U.S. flags and a few hundred employees, the first lady heralded their mission, thanked them, and dived to a rope line to press the flesh as an Obama campaign anthem, U2's "Beautiful Day," boomed over loudspeakers. The media were told that employees could not be interviewed, but some awestruck workers ignored the dictate. Martha Grant, who's been on the federal payroll for 36 years, had never before met a first lady. "Marvelous," Grant, who shook Obama's hand, said of the courtesy call. "She's approachable and caring, like her husband. She asked us if we were hanging in there, and we said we were, and we were definitely behind her and the president."
Unscripted moments are harder to come by, though one happened after she completed the requisite storybook reading at the pastel-drenched Easter Egg Roll. Obama was spotted with Malia grooving before a stage where Fergie shook her derrière and boasted of liking the bad boys in high school, then roared: "Thank you, my new friends the Obamas, for having me here tonight." It was 11:10 a.m.
Dee Dee Myers, press secretary for President Bill Clinton, laughs at the little-known Fergie moment, although she missed it. Based on what she has seen, she calls Obama's early months "pitch perfect" and remarks: "The country is totally enamored with her." Myers can't think of a single gaffe but adds that "the president has said a few things he wishes he hadn't, mostly minor."
Myers credits the Obamas with restoring glamour to the White House, comparing them to the Roosevelts, Kennedys, and Reagans. (Her old boss, Clinton, and his wife don't make the cut.) "People like those kinds of presidents. They're iconic," Myers says. "They were living interesting and exciting lives and were larger than life. People don't want presidents to be Joe the Plumber."
Few know first ladies better than Los Angeles author Carl Sferrazza Anthony, who has interviewed every one since Jackie Kennedy. Noting the public fascination with first ladies among women and men, young and old, and people of all races, he suspects twin ironies are behind it: Were it not for their husbands, we would not know these wives. And were it not for these wives, we would not know their husbands. He hasn't met Obama yet but finds her a "highly, highly, highly conscientious person" and adds: "The heart and soul of this person is someone who has always striven for the best that she could deliver."
Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, says the first lady's approval ratings have shot up because only now is the world getting to know her. "To know Michelle is to love Michelle," Jarrett adds, calling her longtime friend grounded, down-to-earth, and real.
With the East Wing promising to spice up the social calendar with edgy poetry slams and balls for everyday heroes, watch for Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama to deliver a surprise or two in the months to come.