Michelle Obama thanks Interior employees, welcomes Sally Jewell

First Lady Michelle Obama greets Interior employees after speaking at the agencies headquarters on Tuesday. (Saul Loeb/AFP-Getty).
First Lady Michelle Obama greets Interior employees after speaking at the agencies headquarters on Tuesday. (Saul Loeb/AFP-Getty).

First lady Michelle Obama visited the Interior Department headquarters on Tuesday morning to thank the agency’s employees for their service, repeating a similar visit she made during her husband’s first year as president.

Obama also used the occasion to welcome former REI CEO Sally Jewell as the 51st Interior secretary. Jewell, who started her new job a week ago, held an agency-wide, online town hall last Thursday and has spent much of her time meeting with Interior officials and rank-and-file workers, according to an Interior Department official.

The first lady arrived at a packed Yates Auditorium at around 11 a.m. to address an audience comprised mostly of Interior employees, many of whom had arrived hours earlier to go through security lines and grab prime seats in the venue, which holds about 600 people. Seating for the event was first-come-first served.

The Interior Department webcast the event live on its Web site for the remainder of its 77,000 employees, as well as the general public.

Eighteen Interior employees stood on stage with Obama.

The first lady delivered a brief speech and shook hands with each of the workers before leaving the stage and working a rope line for about five minutes.

In her speech, Obama thanked Jewell for agreeing to serve the administration and touted the work that Interior does to protect the nation’s natural resources, drawing a connection between the agency’s mission and her “Let’s Move” initiative that encourages children to be physically active.

“What you do here at Interior is absolutely critical for our children’s health and well-being,” Obama said. “It’s important to expose our kids to the natural resources available right here in this country. That’s what I think about when I think about what you all do.”

Obama also expressed sympathy for the federal employees facing cutbacks under the government-wide spending reductions known as the sequester. “I know you all are juggling more responsibilities with fewer resources,” she said. “Hang in there and know that what you do is extremely important. Our country needs you.”

Among the Interior employees on stage was Pat Watkins, of Fort Washington, Md., whose brother-in-law, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Stephen Rochon, worked as the White House chief usher during President Obama’s first term. Watkins said the first lady “thanked me for my service and asked me how my brother-in-law was doing.”

Watkins, an administrative officer who has worked with Interior for 32 years, said she met the first family at a farewell luncheon for Rochon at the White House.

Bonita Butler, of District Heights, Md., shook hands with the first lady along the rope line Tuesday. “I told her thanks for the work she does for our children,” said Butler, who has worked for two years with Interior’s Office of the Solicitor.

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Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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