First lady Michelle Obama has lacked focus in her advocacy in her first year

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010

On a late Friday morning in October, first lady Michelle Obama hosted a reception in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden at the White House in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It was, in many ways, like so many other workday affairs -- most of them born out of tradition -- over which she has presided during her first year in the White House. It was organized by the Office of Public Engagement along with the White House Social Office. It was highly orchestrated, tightly scripted and mostly uneventful, and for a significant portion of the proceedings Obama stood behind a lectern.

The formal lectern, with its wood veneer and standard image of the White House, was virtually symbolic of an event destined to be rote and flat. It was even pulled into service for what has usually been a charming and festive first-lady ritual: the unveiling of the Christmas decorations. And indeed, Obama's Dec. 2 remarks, detailing the ornament selection, holiday parties and the addition of a miniature marzipan Bo to the gingerbread White House, had all the glee of a discussion on the public option. She read from prepared remarks, which included an announcement that the White House would be supporting the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program. Barely 10 minutes later she was gone, leaving a lone volunteer to wax giddily in the Blue Room about the recycled and redecorated baubles used on the tree last year.

Obama delivered remarks from a lectern at a Christmas party for the hundreds of White House volunteers who decorated the public spaces for the holidays and who opened letters from the public. While they noshed on smoked salmon and brownies, she spoke for about five minutes, according to one of the guests, then stepped down to deliver personal thank-yous and hugs. It's those embraces that sent volunteers over the moon.

As a practical matter, the ever-present lectern was a place for Obama to put her notes as she gamely hosted an assortment of perfunctory events. But it has often served as a metaphorical barrier to her down-to-earth personality and her wry humor, which have emerged to great effect at informal gatherings involving young people who simply do not countenance arm's-length interaction.

The first lady proved she can be a gracious hostess in 2009. She opened the White House to a wide array of citizens, made it a place where the arts are celebrated and nurtured, and transformed it into a source of inspiration for young people, especially those from the D.C. community. But of the numerous receptions, ribbon-cuttings, roundtables and thank-you visits that were on her schedule, few of them -- if any -- resonated beyond the spectacle and frisson of having a celebrity, albeit a history-making one, in the room.

Her events generated pictures for Facebook pages, blogs and brag walls, but not narratives. They made the attendees feel appreciated, special and listened to. But Obama did not attempt to convert audiences of nonbelievers on issues ranging from health-care reform to gender equity. The provocative campaigner, professional advocate, onetime community health-care liaison and "rock" of the Obama family has presided over events that often seemed more dutiful than inspired.

Perhaps with good reason. The rituals have proved to be reassuring. Michelle Obama's approval numbers are on the upswing, with 57 percent of people surveyed saying she is doing well in her position, according to a Dec. 15 Marist poll. At the same time, more people -- 46 percent compared with 32 percent eight months ago -- are saying that she is not altering the role of first lady from its traditional contours. In short, the more conventional she appears to be, the more people seem to like her.

The star attraction

In preparation for Obama's October remarks on breast cancer and health insurance, staff had constructed a small raised platform outlined by rectangular planters filled with ferns. Loudspeakers piped in a loop of jarring marching-band tunes. Beige folding chairs, typical of church fellowship halls, were lined up in rows with guest names or just generic titles, such as member of Congress, tacked to the seats. About 200 or so health-care advocates, including grass-roots activists, cancer survivors and some women still battling the disease, arrived about an hour before the event was to begin. They mingled and waited, without food or drink, in the garden.

The reception, intended to advance the president's health-care agenda while underscoring the particular needs of women, was neither exceptional nor flawless -- not in the manner of meet-and-greets organized by top-tier event planners who have everything but the morning sunrise on their list of details over which to obsess. But in some ways, the afternoon didn't need to be perfect. It was at the White House; the first lady was the star attraction. That alone was enough to give many in the audience goose bumps.

After her remarks, Obama shook hands with her guests, who pulled out digital cameras and cellphones to capture a moment with the most famous woman in America. "We put a newsletter out. We put pictures on our Facebook page," says attendee Maimah Karmo, founder of the Tigerlily Foundation, which aids young women dealing with breast cancer. "It made a huge impact on our constituency. . . . We got calls from people who wanted to volunteer, who wanted to host events for us."

"The event re-energized us to take our message out with more vigor and more passion," Karmo says. "I think the event was very touching and very intimate."

The reception also received mentions on countless media Web sites, although many of those were more concerned with the Moschino print skirt the first lady wore than with her remarks on the difficulties breast-cancer survivors face in navigating the insurance industry. The three eloquent cancer survivors who shared condensed versions of their wrangling with insurance companies had their powerful words defused by preemptive media handouts that told their stories before they did. The first lady read her remarks and thumped the lectern several times for emphasis.

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