Michelle Obama's Star Power Could Focus on Families

Glamorous as Jackie, formidable as Hillary, Michelle Obama to set own agenda.

Nov. 13, 2008 -- In 70 days, an ultimate supermom juggling a high-powered career and two young children will take on a new balancing act -- being first lady of the United States.

Michelle Obama's narrative -- an Ivy League student committed to social justice who forged a dynamic career and was enriched by motherhood -- gives Americans insight into the complex role she is expected to play in the White House.

Her husband, President-elect Barack Obama, has spoken many times about her beauty and intelligence. He even quipped early in his presidential bid that his dynamic wife ought to be at the top of the political ticket.

As glamorous as Jackie Kennedy, as formidable as Hillary Clinton and as homespun as Laura Bush, Michelle Obama may be judged as the right woman for the right moment -- the same way her husband perceives his presidency.

So it's no surprise that her struggle to raise children and sustain a professional life will be at the top of her own and the nation's agenda.

"She has his talent, but not his ambition," said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who knew the future first lady as a former colleague at the University of Chicago.

"They seem to have a loving partnership and marriage," she told ABCNews.com. "And part of what makes it work is that Michelle is critical of Barack, but he never criticizes Michelle. He worships her and she keeps him honest."

For many years, Michelle Obama's professional star shone as brightly as her husband's, and many predict her agenda in the White House will have equal luster.

Even the Secret Service seemingly predicts her rejuvenating imprimatur on the White House. Her code name is Renaissance. Barack Obama's is Renegade.

Those who have watched her political ascent up close say she may not try to redefine the role of first lady but instead will lend her name to causes that resonate for all Americans -- including work issues, health care and the tough challenges faced by military families.

While campaigning for her husband in Florida this fall, Michelle Obama said the country must do more for military families.

"One of the things that I've been doing over this past 20 months is traveling around the country having conversations with the family who are left behind when our men and women go off to serve because, oftentimes, we don't hear their voices," she told a crowd in Jacksonville. "We don't understand their challenges."

Her resume is impressive: a 1985 cum laude graduate of Princeton, a 1988 graduate of Harvard Law School, a former associate dean at the University of Chicago and currently a vice president at the University of Chicago Hospitals. She sits on six boards, including the prestigious Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Focus on 'Consensus' Rather Than Ideology

"Michelle is the quintessential advocacy person," said Harris-Lacewell, who is now an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. "She was never an out-front person and mostly prefers to take a role articulating the interest of other people, rather than having her own agenda."

So far, Michelle Obama has said her immediate priority is to be "first mother" and settle her two children, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, into the White House. She has also pledged to focus on the work-family balance that affects so many American women.

But her deep roots in the middle-class black community may challenge the nation's notion of the traditional first lady.

In February, some bristled over her "for the first time I am proud to be an American" comment. Her critics charged that she was unpatriotic in what was perceived as a major campaign stumble.

Soon after that, a sociology thesis that Michelle Obama had written at Princeton surfaced in the media. After surveying black alumni, she suggested that her attendance at an elite, white institution might lead to her alienation in society.

Princeton sociology professor Mitchell Duneier, who did not know Michelle Obama but analyzed her work, said her thesis "suggests a very impressive quality of mind."

"She discovers that those who end up having many white friends still can self-identify as black, and that black Princeton alumni with white friends who don't enjoy black music or participate in black culture still work for the advancement of the race," he told ABCNews.com.

Duneier, author of "Slim's Table" -- about the black men at the Valois Cafeteria in the Obamas' Hyde Park neighborhood -- said he would not be surprised if, as first lady, she took on issues that "reflect her long-standing concerns with problems of sociological significance."

"And I would expect that she will be very systematic, open-minded and original in her approach to any problems she takes on," he said.

After a series of softer television interviews and efforts to downplay the image of an angry black woman, Michelle Obama successfully turned around perceptions, many observers said.

By the time Michelle Obama walked onstage at Chicago's Grant Park on election night in a bold, red-and-black, scoop-neck dress by Narciso Rodriguez, holding the hands of her two photogenic daughters, she was already a celebrity in her own right.

"She's always struck me as more Princess Diana than Angela Davis," said Harris-Lacewell, who said that Michelle Obama will leverage that public fascination for good works.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks, who met Michelle Obama early in the campaign, agreed that the future first lady "has been burned with being misunderstood."

Michelle Obama: A 'Hugger' and Funny

Brooks describes her as a "hugger" with an "acerbic and sarcastic" sense of humor. "She was superwarm and engaging and friendly," Brooks told ABCNews.com. "I am hoping after the election she lets more of her personality out."

"Her intelligence comes across and also the sense that this is a woman who shares the experience of educated career women who balance work and family," said Brooks. "She's been there, done that and can be an effective advocate for better support for working families."

Michelle Obama left a demanding job at law firm Sidley Austin in Chicago to raise her oldest daughter Malia. Later, while breast-feeding Sasha, she negotiated a more flexible work schedule at the University of Chicago's Medical Center. Juggling work and family, say those close to her, is what gives the first lady-to-be her passion for helping working mothers.

"What I found myself -- and most of my friends -- doing is we just cope," she told Brooks in a cover story in More magazine. "We're taught that as women: Just handle it. Just adjust. We accommodate to things that aren't healthy instead of turning around and going, 'This has got to change.'"

"It's like, oh, so you take half a salary and you do the same amount of work," said Michelle Obama. "They don't take anything off your plate. ... I was always guilty, 100 percent of the time. 'Am I doing my job to the fullest? Am I being the kind of mother I want to be to the fullest?'"

Youngest First Lady Since Kennedy

Michelle Obama, 44, breaks ground in other ways, White House historians say. She is the youngest first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy, who was 32 when she entered the White House in 1961.

Her children will be the youngest presidential pair since the Kennedy era, when Caroline, 3, and "John-John," born 16 days after his father's election, played hide-and-seek for photographers under their father's desk in the Oval Office. Amy Carter was 9 when she arrived in 1976.

On Monday, in a meeting with the first lady, Michelle Obama sought assurances that the White House could be "a home for a family," Anita McBride, Laura Bush's chief of staff, told ABC News.

"Mrs. Bush told Mrs. Obama that her little girls came here for the inauguration of their grandfather in 1989," said McBride. "The chief florist came and got the little girls, Barbara and Jenna, by the hand, took them up to the florist shop to make little flower arrangements that they can then have in their rooms while they were staying here."

In matters of style and grace, Michelle Obama has more often been compared to Jacqueline Kennedy, who had fewer political interests but equal star power.

Mrs. Kennedy proved that the image of the first lady can work wonders for foreign diplomacy, according to Letitia Baldridge, who served as her chief of staff from 1961-63.

"Jackie was the center of attention wherever she went," Baldridge told ABCNews.com. "When they made the state visit to France with President DeGaulle in Versailles, people in the streets were shouting 'Jackie, Jackie!' Kennedy might well have not gone."

Still, she said, "it's tough to be charming all the time. It takes a lot out of you to be gracious, and it's great that two people can share it."

Historical Role of First Lady

Though the social responsibilities of being first lady have been apparent from the earliest days of the republic, the role has evolved.

Rosalynn Carter tried to reshape the office of first lady, taking a more assertive role in mental health and the child immunization policies by the end of her husband's presidency. But President Carter was widely criticized for his wife's initiative, especially when she visited Latin America in 1977 on the president's behalf.

Some wives became major players in their husbands' administrations. In 1986, a major newspaper described Nancy Reagan as having achieved something like an "associate presidency"; in 1993, one magazine outlined a first lady's accomplishments in an article titled "One Hundred Days of Hillary."

"People expect the first lady to be busy but not hovering over policy," said Edward Berkowitz, a professor of the history of the modern American presidency at the George Washington University.

Michelle Obama "won't do the nuts and bolts like Hillary and certainly not whisper in the president's ear like Nancy did to Ronald Reagan," he told ABCNews.com.

Michelle Obama has said she will be in the East Wind, not the West. She will have an office and a budget, but won't be paid. "The public still thinks that's appropriate," he said.

First ladies who faced the least public criticism picked "soft" causes, according to Michele Swers, an assistant professor of political science at Georgetown University. Lady Bird Johnson chose beautification; Betty Ford used her personal experience to highlight addiction; and Laura Bush, a former librarian, encouraged reading.

First Family Image

"She said very clearly she doesn't want a legislative role," Swers said. "She's not going to do a Hillary Clinton-style health care plan."

And despite Baldridge's notion that two can share diplomacy, Michelle Obama must not play too large a role.

"First ladies do have the ear of the president," she said. "She's not elected, and people are touchy about that. But I think she's a very smart woman and will watch herself."

The image makers will be watching, too, at classic events like the White House Easter egg hunt and the lighting of the Christmas tree.

"They will want to portray him [Barack Obama] as very inclusive, as Every Man," said Swers. "He has this background of a white mother and a Kenyan father, so showing him with the wife and two children makes him very acceptable to the broad American public."

But it is their youth that may largely distinguish the Obamas from nearly a half a century of presidents. Malia could be 18 and Sasha, 15, if their father sustains two terms in office -- old enough for Michelle Obama to think about another renaissance.

"These people are young, and they are going to have to think about their careers after the White House, when the kids are grown," said historian Berkowitz. "She could be the next senator from Illinois."

Ferdous D. Alfaruque assisted in research for this report.