First lady Crafts Role in White House

Before the first formal dinner of the Obama administration, first lady Michelle Obama had the same worries as any other dinner party host -- planning the menu, picking the place settings and working out the seating arrangements. The nation's governors were, after all, coming to dinner.

The first lady opened up the White House kitchen that day as part of her pledge to make her new home more open and to serve as the "people's house." She invited several students from a local culinary academy to shadow the staff. She also allowed the press to get an unusual glimpse at what goes on behind the scenes before such an event.

After an explanation of the menu and the dinner preparations, Michelle Obama seemed caught off guard when asked if she had plans to design her own china pattern.

The first lady thought for a second.

"I think so," she said. "I think that's part of the job."

Making of a First Lady

In her first six weeks in the White House, Michelle Obama continues to discover and define what makes up the job of first lady.

It is a position that has historically carried many functions -- hostess, role model, policymaker, advocate, even fashionista.

"At the end of the day, this is the most incredible, unique position in our country," said Anita McBride, chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush. It has no job description, no salary, yet an automatically powerful platform from which a president's wife can talk about anything that she cares about -- and people will pay attention."

Previous first ladies carved out a role that suited their interests and experiences:

Barbara Bush focused on literacy issues and stayed away from policy matters, especially on issues where she seemed to disagree with her husband.

Hillary Clinton assumed a key role in the effort to tackle health care in her husband's first term in office and later functioned as a policy adviser.

Laura Bush became a well-traveled activist on behalf of women's rights in places like Afghanistan and Myanmar.

Michelle Obama's agenda will largely be shaped by her experiences working in community service and development in Chicago, and as a mom to two young girls. Obama, a Princeton and Harvard Law graduate, developed, as the associate dean of student services, the first community service program at the University of Chicago and later worked as the vice president of community and external affairs at the university's medical center.

Aides to previous first ladies say the key is to find a niche that allows her to stay true to her interests and also serve as an effective complement to the administration's agenda.

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"For too long," said Lisa Caputo, press secretary to Hillary Clinton during Bill Clinton's two terms, "we've been almost resorted to this default of having a first lady put in some kind of box with a label on it. And the label would be she is going to advocate for X issue or Y issue. And I think that's really changed in recent years."

To kick-start that agenda, Michelle Obama is making the rounds at the federal agencies in Washington, meeting with the thousands of men and women who now work for her husband.

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