The Many Faces of First Lady Michelle Obama

Many Americans approve of a different kind of first lady.

April 28, 2009, 5:08 PM

April 29, 2009— -- Life these days for first lady Michelle Obama is a mix of the mom-in-chief role she said she would pursue first and foremost, and the ongoing development of a policy and outreach role.

Since the Obamas moved into the White House 100 days ago, they have certainly brought change to the presidential residence.

There is now a puppy, Bo, the Portuguese water dog, running around on the South Lawn, and a swing set for first daughters Malia and Sasha, installed outside the Oval Office.

Obama got her hands dirty planting a vegetable garden with local students, and the executive mansion has been the site of a few sleepovers of giggling tweens.

"Sometimes they sleep in the girls' rooms, or sometimes they sleep upstairs where there's a TV," the first lady told a group of schoolchildren at the White House last week. "They like sleeping in front of the TV, probably like you all do when you have a sleepover."

The first lady has graced the cover of dozens of magazines, inspired a comic book and a Web site that tracks her outfits daily. The fascination with her fashion began from the moment she made her debut at the inaugural ball in a flowing gown by Jason Wu.

"The biggest thing that she's done is kind of transform the way we think a first lady is supposed to look," said Robin Givhan, the Washington Post's fashion editor.

"One of the most distinctive things is that she dresses in a way that's very contemporary and is not concerned with trying to fit into the traditional costume of a first lady."

Obama wears a mix of ready-to-wear basics from stores like J.Crew, with high-fashion pieces from designers such as Isabel Toledo and Jimmy Choo. Her style is decidedly more modern than any of her predecessors, particularly her penchant for sleeveless dresses. Her decision to bear her arms in her official White House portrait raised some eyebrows.

"I think it's surprising only because we're so used to first ladies being covered up," Givhan said.

"They're arms of a particular generation. They're about athleticism. They're the arms of a woman who came of age when women went to the gym and they lifted weights and that wasn't deemed as unfeminine, so I think in some ways it's generational."

The first lady has said on a number of occasions that she has the best job in the White House, because she "gets to do the fun stuff."

But America has yet to hear much from the other side of Michelle Obama, the Harvard-trained lawyer, the executive, the woman who once was President Obama's boss.

Danielle Belton, who blogs for, said, "She is very careful about what kind of energy she puts out there, about what she has to say. She's very mindful. She's very smart. I feel like she is waiting for the right time."

First lady Hillary Clinton learned the hard way that too strong, too fast, did not work. First lady Laura Bush kept her politics fairly private during her husband's time in office.

Michelle Obama Balances Work, Family

"It's hard to balance being the symbol of femininity that is the first lady, also showing I am an intelligent, capable woman, capable of understanding policy, capable of directing policy, capable of representing an issue or an initiative that would help people," Belton said. "I know she has a few initiatives that she is interested in."

Obama has said that the work-family balance, education, instilling confidence and power in young girls and assisting military families will be her eventual policy focus. She has spoken to local high school students about the importance of education; served a meal at a local food bank and has visited almost every federal agency in Washington in an effort to thank federal employees for their service.

Myra Gutin, who studies first ladies as a professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., said one of the most notable aspects of Michelle Obama's first 100 days is that she has been a surprise to a lot of Americans who had reservations about her in this role.

"She's been, I think, very careful," Gutin said. "I'm certain that she does not want to spend any of the president's political capital cleaning up a misstep on her part, but that hasn't happened. Whoever is advising her is giving her pretty solid advice on stepping over the potential quagmires."

The first lady's outreach has paid off in the court public opinion; she now has approval ratings that are higher than her husband's. Seventy-six percent of Americans had a favorable view of the first lady in an ABC News poll last month, compared with 48 percent last June.

"For someone who came in with questions surrounding her, that's notable," Gutin said.

Those questions stemmed from a comment she made on the campaign trail when she said, "For the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback."

She took considerable criticism for the remark, and some wondered if she would be a liability on the campaign trail.

But those ruminations from the chattering class seem like ancient history now, and Gutin said the more people got to know her during the campaign, the more they liked her.

"I think things started to change when she did an appearance on 'The View.' From there, things got a lot better and then her DNC speech and appearances on the campaign trail," Gutin said.

After a flurry of social activity in the weeks leading up to the inauguration, including dinner at a top D.C. restaurant and a family visit to the Lincoln Memorial, the Obamas have settled in almost as homebodies at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, waking up early for morning workoutsand ending with late night "veg outs" in front of the TV.

The Obamas attended two events at the Kennedy Center, including a tribute to Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., but have largely stayed out of the local social spotlight and are keeping a lower social profile than most Washingtonians would have expected

The president had tongues wagging when he skipped an annual dinner of journalists earlier this year in favor of spending the weekend with his wife and daughters at Camp David.

Michelle Obama Discovers Washington

Obama was the first president to miss the Gridiron Dinner in his first year in office since Grover Cleveland in 1885. But the event fell during his daughters' spring break, and White House aides said it was never a question of where he would rather be.

As a family, the Obamas may be spending time at home, settling into their new digs, but the first lady has still found time to get out and explore her new hometown with friends and staff.

She told the gathering of elementary school kids at the White House last week that "every now and then," she will "sneak out, without telling anybody" to check out restaurants around town.

"We go and test out all the fun places to eat in D.C., like I went to Five Guys and nobody knew it. It was good," she said to knowing laughter. "So we sometimes sneak out and do little things like that."

As for her free time, the first lady admitted she doesn't have much of it these days, especially since the family's new puppy moved into the White House.

She said she does what most moms do every day, spend their free time with their children.

"I like to go to my kids' games. They've got soccer now, so I spend a lot of time doing their things and watching their movies and, you know, making sure that their friends have a good time," she said.

She may be mom at home. but she's "Mighty Michelle" in the U.K. The British media gave the first lady the nickname after she and her husband traveled to Europe in April. While the president focused on the global economic crisis, the first lady spent much of her time with the wives of other world leaders, and the international media spent much of its time chronicling her every move and every wardrobe change.

She held her own in the widely anticipated fashion face off with model-turned-singer-turned-first lady of France, Carla Bruni Sarkozy. Obama's aides say she and Sarkozy enjoyed each other's company. They shared lunch, had a lively conversation and seemed to genuinely like each other.

Even when she broke protocol by putting her arm around the queen of England, the queen hugged back.

And in a country that prides itself on keeping a stiff upper lip, Michelle Obama dared to show a little emotion. The first lady teared up when speaking to teenagers at a London girl's school.

"All of you are jewels," she said. "You are precious, and you touch my heart. And it is important for the world to know that there are wonderful girls like you all over the world."

The first lady shared her own story of growing up on the South side of Chicago, and eventually making it to the White House.

"I want you to know that we have very much in common, for nothing in my life's path would have predicted that I'd be standing here as the first African-American first lady of the United States of America," she told them.

She encouraged them to study hard and believe in themselves. Her words seemed well received, but it was her personal touch that may have made the biggest impact. After her speech, Obama hugged many of the students, prompting them to rush the stage and bringing some to tears.

Blogger Belton said if there's anything Michelle Obama has displayed in these 100 days, it's versatility.

"She 'metamorphed' into this cross between Susie Q. homemaker meets I'm every woman executive meets classic diplomatic. I can be in a ball gown first lady, I can be at a business meeting, I can go visit every department here in our government and speak to anyone, and go meet the queen of England in my perfect little cardigan sweater, and I'm ready to go," Belton said, laughing. "I think she really studied and got into the role and just like everything else in her life, she's prepared herself. She's adaptable."

The first lady's office has said she would continue to build her role working with military families. Her first trip outside Washington was to Fort Bragg, N.C., where she met with military families at an emotional roundtable discussion. She will continue her listening tour of federal agencies. And, of course, she will continue the transition into the role of mom-in-chief.

"She's really not dealing with controversial issues, not talking about the economy or Afghanistan," Gutin of Rider University said. "The things that she's chosen to do and the way she's gone about them have really played very well."

Gutin said Obama's impact will develop as she delves more deeply into her signature issue.

"Any first lady can really have a considerable impact because it draws the national spotlight to whatever the project is," Gutin said, noting the work of former first ladies Barbara Bush (literacy), Rosalind Carter (mental health), Lady Bird Johnson (environment).

"It ends up being a boon to whatever the initiative is."

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