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."
But it's not her policy, aides emphasize later. "She'll be doing a lot of listening and identifying and focusing the needs of Americans," Norris says. "If policy comes from those discussions, her role will be in bringing those voices back to the president. . . . What we are thinking through is how she adds value to the White House. It's a process that doesn't need to be rushed."
Would the country accept another first lady who takes on an activist policy role?
"Michelle Obama may well find the country more receptive," Blumenthal says. "It's a very different country with Obama's election."
Laura Bush's former chief of staff, Anita McBride, agrees: "I think we are more ready for the first lady to be an active participant."
And Fred Barnes, the conservative Republican pundit, said on his Fox News chat show recently: "I have nothing against her having a policy role in the administration. Just be transparent about it and let people know that's what she's doing. Unlike the Reagan administration, where Nancy Reagan played a big role and denied it."
East Wing occupants are keenly aware that their activities and utterances will reflect on the president. Mrs. Obama's close aides are well-schooled political operatives. They drew on previous chiefs of staff to Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush for advice on shaping Mrs. Obama's approach. In one three-hour meeting, they discussed "best practices and lessons learned," McBride recalls.
When asked the first thing she would recommend, McBride says she suggested "reaching out to the federal agencies" -- which Mrs. Bush had done in her Helping America's Youth initiative that involved 10 government departments.
The Obama team ultimately launched a methodical tour that has so far included the departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, Interior and, yesterday, Agriculture. "They deserve a lot of credit for taking the step of traveling to the agencies, which was a brilliant idea," McBride says. "The agencies will be terrific partners on whatever issues the first lady wants to take on. They absolutely will respond to the first lady's leadership and recognition."
Activist first ladies are no longer novel; Eleanor Roosevelt is often cited as the trailblazer. She rose from her privileged background to become an advocate for workers and anti-poverty crusader during the Depression. She traveled with the troops during World War II, writing her daily newspaper column. As first lady, Pat Nixon visited 81 countries; Hillary Clinton traveled to 80 and Laura Bush to 77.
"All previous first ladies have broken ground in their own right," Caputo says, noting, "Edith Wilson was writing President Wilson's speeches."
Laura Bush and Rosalynn Carter both appeared before Congress on their particular causes -- education and mental health, respectively. In the latter part of her husband's administration, Laura Bush became deeply involved in advocacy for human rights in Burma, to the extent that McBride attended meetings with the National Security Council senior staff.
"This is a long line of advocacy; everybody puts their own stamp on it," McBride says. "At the end of the day, they are all there to support their husbands' policies."
In appearances here, Mrs. Obama has extended her campaigner's gift for pleasing audiences with an informal manner and an eye for good photo-ops. She encouraged preschoolers to give her a group hug after she read to them at Mary's Center -- a picture that the cameramen crowding the small classroom couldn't resist. At Howard University, she parlayed such media attention into fodder for a comic riff.
"If you watch any TV, I'm sure you have seen everything that I do," she said. "I feel really redundant sharing with people what I do because folks are like: Yes, I know, I saw you on TV. And I'm like: That's right, I forgot."
She also drew laughs with this line: "The question that I hate most that we ask of young people is, 'What are you going to be when you grow up?' And the truth is, I still don't know, and I'm 45 years old."
Joking or not, she knows more now about the job of first lady.