Michelle Obama Tries to Define Her Role as First Lady

Mrs. Obama, at the Agriculture Department, has begun reaching out to federal agencies.
Mrs. Obama, at the Agriculture Department, has begun reaching out to federal agencies. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
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By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

So, the young man asked, how does it feel to be the first lady?

"I think I'm still trying to figure that out," Michelle Obama replied.

The exchange took place the other day when Mrs. Obama sat with a group of teenagers in an after-school program at an Adams Morgan services center for Latino families. Her answer reflects, in a way, the challenge that faces every new occupant of the White House's East Wing: She has to feel her way, in a delicate political navigation, to find her role in the administration. Her aides are so cautious that they won't even publicly discuss the concept of Mrs. Obama having her own "policy" or "agenda."

Some observers say Mrs. Obama learned well from an early pitfall suffered by the most recent Democratic first lady, Hillary Clinton, who faced a backlash in her husband's first term when she led an initiative on health-care policy.

"As the point person for a signature proposal of her husband's, Mrs. Clinton put herself in the beginning in the line of fire and took herself out of the traditional protective cocoon of the first lady," recalls Sidney Blumenthal, a former Clinton White House aide.

It's noteworthy that Mrs. Clinton occupied an office in the West Wing from the start. The approach taken by Mrs. Obama's staff is indirect: "Part of this phase right now is sitting with the president's West Wing advisers and seeing how we can best be helpful," says Jackie Norris, the first lady's chief of staff.

The position of first lady has no job description, but basically presidential wives get their say, as in most households. "Whether as soul mates, helpmates or those who are essential to their husbands' political survival, all first ladies have played a part in history," as Kati Marton wrote in her book "Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History."

The causes she promotes, the places she visits, the invitations she accepts and issues -- they all add up to an agenda, one that almost always dovetails with the president's. This process wouldn't seem to call for a great deal of existential angst, but Washington being Washington, every decision comes with calculation: How will it play politically?

"A lot of thinking goes into how a first lady wants to position herself, and how that relates to the president's agenda, and whether she should play a policy role or not, or pick a series of causes that relate to policy or not," says Lisa Caputo, a former press secretary for Mrs. Clinton. "Or she could take a more ceremonial role. Or she can try to balance some or all of the above."

Mrs. Obama's inner circle is comfortable talking in only broad terms for now, echoing the official biography posted on the White House Web site, which cites her interest in "supporting military families, helping working women balance career and family, and encouraging national service." Add to that a meet-the-neighbors approach to her new home town: While her daughters are at school, Mrs. Obama makes forays around Washington.

In her first month in the East Wing, she has pushed beyond her initial self-definition as "mom in chief," notably visiting four Cabinet-level federal agencies to rally workers and tout her husband's agenda. She has also read to children, promoted community involvement and participated in a forum for African American women at Howard University. Her celebrity status draws adoring crowds. But a review of her public remarks finds scant reference to policy.

When Mrs. Obama met in a semicircle with the 13 teenagers at Mary's Center for Maternal and Child Care last week, her aides characterized the visit as an extension of her desire to familiarize herself with the D.C. community and hear people's concerns. But there was another aim, which the first lady likened to being her husband's eyes and ears -- "learning more about centers like Mary's Center and the work that they're doing," she said, "and taking that information back so that it can help him think better about how to shape policy."

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