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First Lady Is Creating Role That Reflects Her Passions

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The Post's Lois Romano discusses first lady Michelle Obama's recent moves to enhance her role at the White House. Audio by Sarah Lovenheim

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By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009

For weeks, Michelle Obama had been telling her staff and closest confidantes that she wasn't having the impact she wanted. She is a woman of substance, with a background in law, public policy and management, who found herself relegated to role model in chief. The West Wing of the White House -- the fulcrum of power and policy -- had not fully integrated her into its agenda. She wanted more.

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So, earlier this month, she changed her chief of staff, and now she's changing her role.

Her new chief of staff, Susan Sher, 61, is a close friend and former boss who the first lady thinks will be more forceful about getting her and her team on the West Wing's radar screen. The first thing Sher said she told senior adviser David Axelrod, whom she has known for years: When I call, "you need to get back to me right away."

The former chief of staff, Jackie Norris, 37, was "not on the first lady's wavelength," said one source, echoing others, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. "Susan is more of a peer," a senior White House official said. "I think that's probably a better model."

Although Obama's job-approval ratings have soared, the first lady -- a Harvard-educated lawyer -- wasn't satisfied with coasting. She is hiring a full-time speechwriter and has instructed her staff to think "strategically" so that every event has a purpose and a message. She doesn't want to simply go to events and hug struggling military families, she said; she wants to show progress. "Her desire is to step out more and have deliverables," said communications chief Camille Johnston. "It's about things that are coming up that we want to be a part of: child nutrition reauthorization act, prevention and wellness for health-care reform."

In the past couple of weeks, Obama has been more vocal about the specifics of the president's health plan, and she will play a substantive role in promoting it. She will soon announce the creation of an advisory board to help military families. And she will be the face of the administration's United We Serve, a summer-long national service program, which she launched on Monday. Even her social events have a message: She let congressional families know that before the annual White House barbecue today, the 500 guests are expected to show up at Fort McNair to stuff camp backpacks with goodies for the children of military personnel.

Obama has also taken stock of her family life, which she has found to be more constrained than she expected. She has concluded that there's really only one road toward some semblance of a private life for them -- and it leads away from the White House.

Laying Out Her Strategy

On Jan. 14, days before the inauguration, Obama assembled her new staff in a conference room at transition headquarters for a two-hour lunch meeting. In the room was a mix of loyal campaign aides, good friends she had persuaded to leave high-paying corporate jobs, and political professionals who were virtual strangers to her. It was the first time many of the 20 or so aides had met, and the incoming first lady said she expected them to operate "at 120 percent." All eyes were on them, she cautioned, and there was little room for error.

She emphasized that they must work on a parallel track with the president's office to avoid the historical East Wing-West Wing tensions that have plagued most administrations. "Seamless" was the word she used to describe the partnership she expected with her husband's staff.

Last, she exhorted her staff to find a personal balance. For her part, Obama informed them that she would practice what she preached: She did not intend to work more than 2 1/2 days a week. She was also planning to take off the month of August.

Unspoken but well known to some in the room was how unhappy Obama had been with the lack of campaign support she received during the presidential primaries. The president's advisers acknowledge that Michelle Obama was ill-served in the early days of the 2008 campaign, when opponents were able to portray her as unpatriotic, haughty and a caricature of an angry black woman. She was horrified to learn that she had become a liability to the candidate for saying that for the first time in her life, she was proud of her country.

"Obviously, given how fundamentally distorted the public lens was on her, I think we could have done a much better job for her. . . . I don't think there's any question about that," Axelrod concedes. "It took her a while to dig out of that."


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