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Michelle Obama's garden-variety agenda

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, April 1, 2010; A02

For the first time in her adult life, Michelle Obama is really proud of her cauliflower.

She's also proud of her carrots, her chard, her collards, her cabbage, her chamomile, chervil and kohlrabi -- and everything else in her White House garden, which she planted Wednesday afternoon with a group of schoolchildren.

"Peas! We did some peas!" she told the kids, recounting the glories of last year's harvest. "We did some onions, and we did a bunch of herbs. Don't you remember? We did chives and garlic and rosemary and all that good stuff. We had blueberries and raspberries and blackberries. Mmmm."

"We harvested over 55 different kinds of healthy food -- 55!" the first lady reported. "One thousand pounds of food! Can you imagine that?"

Also hard to imagine is that this is the same Michelle Obama so many feared when her husband ran for the presidency in 2008. Then, many predicted that she would be an angry and divisive presence in the White House, based largely on unfounded racial accusations on the Internet and her poorly worded boast during the primaries that "for the first time in my adult life, I'm really proud of my country."

Compared with those expectations of a fiery first lady, Obama, beginning her second spring in the White House, has turned out to be Michelle Milquetoast. Her low profile has been one of the big surprises of the Obama presidency, even to officials in the West Wing, who have noted what they regard as her light schedule.

She has shied from controversy, made relatively few public appearances, and stuck to an unobjectionable agenda of nutrition, exercise and good parenting. It is a domestic agenda -- extremely domestic. Addressing a White House meeting on workplace flexibility Wednesday, she recalled taking her infant daughter on a job interview. "She slept through the entire interview," Obama recounted. "I was still breast-feeding, if that's not too much information."

A spate of news stories last summer said that, after gracing the covers of glossy magazines, she was going to begin to follow the Hillary Clinton model. But far from following Clinton, Obama so far hasn't even been as much of a lightning rod as Laura Bush (who told Republicans not to use the gay-marriage amendment as "a campaign tool") or Barbara Bush (who offered her view that abortion shouldn't be in the GOP platform).

By comparison, Obama has been almost demure in her pronouncements. She recently voiced, for example, her considered opinion that young girls should "have no limits on their dreams and no obstacles to their achievements" -- thus defying all those who favor strict limits on dreams and more obstacles for young girls.

Avoiding controversy helps Obama keep her sky-high public standing. An Associated Press poll this month found her favorability rating at 71 percent -- substantially better than those of her husband and her two predecessors as first lady. But her low profile also means that she's been underutilized as an advocate of the president's agenda.

Wednesday, with two public events on her schedule, was a relatively big day for Obama. The issues were laudable -- workplace flexibility for parents and healthy eating for children -- but offered no possibility that the first lady would make news.

At the conference on workplace flexibility, held in a small auditorium in the White House complex, she spoke for just seven minutes, with the assistance of a teleprompter. She offered a few anodyne thoughts -- "As the parents of two beautiful young daughters, it is an issue that is particularly important to me and my husband" -- before announcing that "my work is done" and sitting in the first row while ABC News's Claire Shipman led a panel discussion.

A few hours later, after changing into Keds and a black gardening outfit, she walked onto the South Lawn for her second event. Secret Service agents in suits and White House chefs in white jackets stood guard as an aide handed out maps of the garden plot that listed locations for the arugula, the fennel, the kale, the bok choi, the marjoram and all the rest.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, accompanying her for the planting, tried to rally the kids. "Can we say, 'Yay tomatoes?' " he asked. Nobody responded.

"C'mon," Vilsack coaxed. "Yay tomatoes!"

"Yay tomatoes!" the children offered.

"Yay carrots!" the secretary of agriculture continued.

"Yay carrots!" said the kids.

"Yay spinach," Vilsack continued. "Yay broccoli."

Obama then helped kids plant seedlings of what she termed "broccoli schmoccoli," while Vilsack worked on the peas and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius busied herself with onions. Once Obama finished the broccoli, she watered the lettuce.

The first lady of the United States, dirt on her knees, then taught the children how to do "the rhubarb dance," which consisted of wiggling fingers and casting a voodoo-like spell on the herb and chanting, "Grow, rhubarb, grow." She then marched them rhythmically around the plot. "You gotta shake it!" she instructed.

She returned to the White House, but not before leaving the photographers and reporters with a final admonition. "Stay out of trouble," she said. It's something Michelle Obama has done exceedingly well.

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