By Katherine Skiba Katherine Skiba – Wed May 27, 3:22 pm ET
After her husband's historic victory, it emerged that Michelle Obama saw her role as first lady as being a wife and mother first. In terms of visions, it was traditional, nonthreatening, and practically ho-hum. But it has proved a whopping understatement for the world's newest A-lister, a woman whose debut has been punctuated with exclamation points. [See photos of Michelle Obama]
The 45-year-old Ivy League lawyer and product of Chicago's working class has captured many hearts by hewing to that deceptively quaint ethos while displaying other sides: fearless fashionista, fun-loving hostess, protocol-stretching diplomat, amateur organic gardener, cost-savvy decorator, West Wing surrogate, and, in particular, inspirer-in-chief. [Read Obama's Power Players: First Lady Michelle Obama]
"My first lady and yours" is how Barack Obama now introduces his wife of 16 years as she has skyrocketed in polls, surpassing him in favorable ratings while silencing old chatter about whether she was helping or hurting him. A recent poll by Gallup found 72 percent had a positive view of her, up from 43 percent in June 2008. It was low then in part because of campaign missteps. She once said, "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country," leaving critics to question her patriotism. [See photos of the Obama's behind the scenes]
When the Obamas moved daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, and Michelle's mother, 71, into the White House, the first spouse set the bar low, cannily so. She said she wanted to get the girls settled, get to know the city, and build her own team. Practically overnight, the confident, 5-foot, 11-inch daughter of a Chicago water department pump operator attracted new admirers, not to mention making cameras swoon as she draped herself in look-at-me shades like celadon and fuchsia and bared enviably buff biceps.
White House makeover. While she's followed the traditional avenues by visiting inner-city school kids, paying homage to the troops, wining and dining members of Congress, and wooing foreign dignitaries, she's done it her way. At the White House, protocol is looser, parties are hipper (and more frequent), and pop artists from Stevie Wonder to Fergie are paying calls. In a nod to the country's worst economic crisis in 80 years, the first lady turned away a stipend of $100,000 to redo the family's private quarters, saying the Obamas will dig into their own bank account. [Read Michelle Obama's Military Mission]
It's said that she hasn't loosened house rules for the girls, who attend the exclusive Sidwell Friends School, make their own beds, and turn in at 8 p.m., a lights-out that is relaxed when friends visit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for sleepovers.
She is by no means universally admired. Forty-two-year-old Terrilynne Butler of Gaithersburg, Md., isn't crazy about Obama's "out there, outspoken" ways. "I kind of prefer Laura Bush--the supportive, gentle, wind-beneath-my-wings-type person I prefer a first lady to be," Butler says. The mother of six was one of many who criticized the White House for changing the way tickets for the annual Easter Egg Roll were distributed. After getting tickets in past years by waiting in line for hours, Butler and others blame the online system for foiling their bids to attend this year.
The role of first ladies evolves and enlarges over time as they find their comfort zone and zero in on their interests. Already, though, a practiced observer and self-described Republican, Letitia Baldrige, who was Jacqueline Kennedy's top aide, is gushing over the East Wing's latest occupant. Talking about Obama, Baldrige says: "She's attractive, she's well educated, she's charming, she's good-looking and all of that, plus she's the first African-American first lady. I mean, that's a socko combination. She's the hottest story in the world. She really is." [See photos of the Obama family]
Baldrige approves of Obama's opening act, which has seen her "spread out in all directions," since inevitably "she's going to find out one of those directions is par-ticularly important to her. It's going to get her heart."
As Obama's aides tell it, she's already had an early epiphany. It happened April 2 at an inner-city, all-girls school in London, the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Language School, a largely minority facility where about 1 in 5 students was born to refugees. There, Obama described her humble beginnings on Chicago's South Side and pointed out that neither of her parents went to college. She spoke of her late father, who persisted at work despite multiple sclerosis and "never complained" even after it got hard for him to dress himself and to walk. And she said she thrived because she was loved, nurtured, and educated. "I never cut class," she told the girls, who were moved to tears. "I loved getting A's. I liked being smart. I liked being on time. I liked getting my work done. I thought being smart was cooler than anything in the world."
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. [See the members of Obama's inner circle]
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. [Read a Q&A with Valerie Jarrett on Michelle Obama]
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.