As First Lady, Michelle Obama Can Blaze Her Own Trail

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

" Miss Michelle," a tiny boy's voice calls from the crowd, watching Michelle Obama as she greets people at RFK Stadium yesterday.

She has come here to help assemble care packages to be sent to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Miss Michelle!" the child's voice yells, this time a bit more urgently, but lost in the flash of cameras and the calls of adults who want to get closer.

"Can you ask her to look this way?" Shannon Henderson, the boy's mother, says to a Secret Service agent.

No, he says politely, his eyes quick to notice hands in pockets and small movements.

Someone tells Henderson: "Just yell louder. I'm sure she will look this way."

"Michelle!" Henderson yells above the roar.

Michelle Obama stops. Looks up. Dressed in a sea-green sweater, wrapped in a sea-blue belt. Obama smiles a Hollywood smile and waves at the mother and child.

"It meant the world to me that she would look up," says Henderson, who came with expectations of what a first lady should be and do and say. And she found: "She is a very warm person. You can feel it."

We'd heard that Michelle Obama was more stunning in person. We'd heard that she was down-to-earth. Maya Angelou called her the real thing. But we knew that up close, people are often different.

So over the past days we've watched Obama during the lead-up to the inauguration. We've had trivial questions about her style, wondering about The Dress, her coat, her do. We've had bigger questions, wondering what she might do with her role as first lady.

From Philly to Delaware to Baltimore and finally to D.C., crowds gathered to watch Barack Obama. But people gathered to watch Michelle Obama, too. In Delaware, they delayed her husband's remarks briefly to sing "Happy Birthday" to her. On Sunday, she went to services at the historic 19th Street Baptist Church, where she shook hands with members. That afternoon at the Lincoln Memorial, she grooved to the star-studded lineup, rising to her feet during a performance by Stevie Wonder, Usher and Shakira.

Last night, at the "We Are the Future" concert at Verizon Center, she urged volunteering, thanked troops stationed around the world, then danced again, this time to the Jonas Brothers.

Michelle Obama, a 45-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer: How much tradition would she bring to her new office? How might she change it? How might it change her?

Only lingering questions: Would she be another Hillary Clinton? Would there be a touch of Jackie Kennedy? Eleanor Roosevelt? Nobody was announcing, as the Clintons did, that we would get two for one with the Obamas. But what would we get?

"The first lady has always been the approachable public face of the presidential administration. While a president is concentrating on business, the first lady almost by definition is the one there to show compassion," said Lisa Kathleen Graddy, co-curator of the First Ladies Collection at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. "Some call it the white-glove pulpit."

"When George Washington was president," Graddy said, "veterans who could not see the president would come to the door and talk to Mrs. Washington. . . . The first lady is a public advocate. She is the representative of our country. One doesn't like to say the queen. But she is the official female figure representing our country in a ceremonial way."

Jacqueline Kennedy spent time renovating the White House. Lady Bird Johnson worked on what then was called beautification. Nancy Reagan advocated "Just say no" to drugs. Laura Bush focused on literacy. "Eleanor Roosevelt didn't have one project," said Myra G. Gutin, a first lady historian and author of "The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century." "She was all over the board. She was involved in New Deal programs. She was active in policy. She did it quietly. I don't think it is right to say Michelle Obama will be the next Eleanor Roosevelt."

Obama has said she will focus on work-family balance issues, community service and military families. "In the months to come," a transition official said, "Mrs. Obama will define the role of first lady for herself -- blending family and issues of great importance to her. Nancy Reagan said the following years ago, and she was absolutely right: 'The Constitution doesn't mention the president's wife. . . . Each incoming first lady has had to define the job herself.' Over time, Mrs. Obama will do the same."

Since Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination in June, polls show that more people like Michelle Obama. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that she is viewed positively by 72 percent of Americans, up from 48 percent in June. Positive impressions of her cross party lines: with 92 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents and 47 percent of Republicans (including 50 percent of GOP women) expressing favorable views.

Yesterday, up close, crowds pressed to get closer to her. And she seemed to like them back.

She looks people in the eye when she greets them. She winks sometimes when she smiles. She hugs older women. She spends more time talking to children than to adults.

She asks a little girl: "What's your name?"

"Maya," the girl says.

"Do you know there is a famous poet with your name?"

To a boy in a brown corduroy jacket, she tells him to concentrate on his grades.

To 6-year-old Kennedy Walls, who asks whether Malia and Sasha could come to a ball in Arlington, Obama thanks Kennedy for the invitation but says the girls are really, really busy.

To Sharon Parrish Andrews, Michelle listens as she tells a story about her father, one of the first black judges in Wisconsin. Andrews gives Obama a book written by him called "Expression of Faith," and Obama promises to read it. And then she shakes Andrews's hand.

"We looked each other in the eye," Andrews says later. "She gave me this crystal smile. She patted the back of my hand with her other hand."

Andrews's daughter Eleanor explained: "My mother always says if you really want to let someone know you mean bu siness, you clasp their hand. To my mother, who was raised that way, it means something."

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