First lady Crafts Role in White House

Michelle Obama settles into her role as advocate, first mom and hostess in chief

March 4, 2009— -- 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.

Her mission will be to thank them and rally them for more work ahead. It's also a chance for her to hear the concerns of federal government employees and relay them back to the president. It was billed as a "listening tour," but it has evolved into an opportunity for Mrs. Obama to introduce herself and tout the president's policies and agenda.

The agency tour was Michelle Obama's idea and is the first chapter of her life in her new role. At each stop, she makes a point to meet privately with a smaller group of staffers before she delivers remarks. She has asked to meet with the longest-serving staff members at these agencies, and when she visited the Department of Interior last month, some of the employees she spoke with had worked there for nearly 40 years.

Six agencies down and about a dozen to go, and her office said she intends to visit all of them in the next few months.

Chapter two has already begun and will include the first lady delving more deeply into her policy agenda, which will center on working with and for military families; addressing the work-family balance and promoting national service.

Mrs. Obama has long said military families would be a central focus of her White House agenda. While on the campaign trail, she hosted a series of roundtables for working women to discuss the challenges of balancing career and family. The first lady was particularly moved by her conversations with military wives because of the added burdens they face with a spouse often abroad and in harm's way. As a result, she began hosting regular roundtables with military spouses.

Mrs. Obama kicked off this effort with a visit to the Women in Military Service for the America Memorial Center at Arlington National Cemetery Tuesday. There she paid tribute to women who have served in the armed forces and the service of military families who "have a special courage and strength." She said she had been "honored and deeply moved" to meet with these families in recent years.

In announcing the time table for the withdrawal of U.S. Forces from Iraq, President Obama spoke of his wife's commitment to military families.

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"My wife, Michelle, has learned firsthand about the unique burden that your families endure every day," the president told an audience of 3,700 Marines at Camp Lejune last week, "I want you to know this: Military families are a top priority for Michelle and me, and they will be a top priority for my administration."

Mrs. Obama was the president's top surrogate on the campaign trail. She could talk policy one minute and the next minute talk about her own struggles in balancing family life and career.

Her popularity has grown since the campaign, and 72 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Mrs. Obama, according to an ABC News-Washington Post poll taken in January.

That popularity may enable her to serve as an invaluable advocate for the administration's agenda. Mrs. Obama used her first stops on the agency tour as an opportunity to tout the stimulus package the president was trying to get through Congress. Aides to former first ladies say the outreach to government workers is smart and shows that Mrs. Obama and her staff have a keen eye on how to effectively introduce her to a new city and at the same time rally support for her husband's policies and agenda.

The Obama administration recognizes the key role that the first lady can play in advocating for its agenda. Aides say there is considerable coordination at the staff level between the East Wing and the West Wing and describe this as the left hand and the right hand working together.

The Bush and Clinton White Houses had a similar approach.

"It's a very collaborative relationship between East and West wing to make the work of the first lady that much more effective," said McBride. "When you have their support and you have their assets available to you its much easier to get the job done.

The first lady's office receives a heavy volume of requests and invitations and one priority for her staff of about two dozen is to bring to the White House the voices and stories of the thousands of Americans that Mrs. Obama met over two years on the campaign trail.

Americans like Mary Henley who Mrs. Obama met at a roundtable in Richmond, Va., and invited to sit in her box for President Obama's joint address to Congress last month. Henley is a 78-year-old widow who works part time cleaning office buildings to supplement the Social Security benefits she receives. Aides say there will be many more examples like this when names and stories from the campaign trail make their way into the White House narrative.

A More Open White House

Mrs. Obama has spoken repeatedly about her desire to open the White House up to the community and use it for inclusion and education. Her role as hostess-in-chief is one that accompanies any policy agenda or advocacy she does.

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"That's a traditional role that is never going to go away," McBride said. "A lot is expected of the first lady and more and more, Americans look to the first lady to be a representative of the American people abroad and look to the first lady to be a gracious hostess at the White House."

The hottest ticket in town on a Wednesday night may be an invitation to drop by the White House. These regular mid-week social gatherings are the Obama's chance to do business but in a less formal environment. They view this as an opportunity to reach out to government officials, business and community leaders and friends and say, "come on over, let's hang out."

In addition to these weekly gatherings, the Obama's have hosted two formal dinners at the White House – one for the nation's governors and one honoring music legend Stevie Wonder.

But it's not just the grownups having all the fun at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In February, Mrs. Obama welcomed 180 school children to the White House to celebrate African-American History month with an afternoon of history and music. As the children left, the first lady stood by the door and shook the hands of her guests and thanked them for coming.

Mrs. Obama described her primary role in the White House as "mom-in-chief" and said the top priority is making sure her daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, have a smooth transition into life in Washington. She is there to see her daughters off to school in the morning and is there when they get home in the afternoon. After nearly two years on the campaign trail, Mrs. Obama may be accustomed to public interest in her family, but she is still working to draw boundaries. Recently, when toy maker Ty, Inc. released two dolls, bearing the names "Sweet Sasha" and "Marvelous Malia," her office issued a statement condemning the company saying they believed it was "inappropriate to use young, private citizens for marketing purposes." The company has since changed the names.

The first lady is also interested in getting out to explore the city that her family now calls home. With her husband, Mrs. Obama attended a performance at the Kennedy Center. With her staff, she has gone out to lunch at a local hamburger joint and a barbeque restaurant.

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