Robin Givhan examines Michelle Obama's first trip abroad alone

First lady Michelle Obama will travel to Mexico City on Tuesday for her first official solo trip.
First lady Michelle Obama will travel to Mexico City on Tuesday for her first official solo trip. (Evan Vucci - AP)
By Robin Givhan
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On Tuesday, first lady Michelle Obama will travel abroad. She has already visited nine countries since moving into the White House. But this time, when she arrives in Mexico, she will be a solo star on the world stage. Her three-day journey to Mexico City will be her first official foreign trip alone -- without the president and without her children. She will use it to amplify and articulate a singular message to young people: self-determination.

Recent first ladies have often been at their most provocative when they've traveled abroad. As first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to China for the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 to deliver a major address. In the weeks leading up to her speech, Clinton administration officials debated whether it was wise for her to go, whether she should confront China on its human rights abuses and how it should be done. She ended up delivering her now-famous speech in which she equated women's rights and human rights. "If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference," Clinton said, "it is that human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights once and for all."

Observers worried that the comments would turn out to be politically devastating. But in an interview with reporters after the fact, Clinton said: "We are working towards having a very comprehensive and hopefully good relationship with China in many areas. For me, it was important to express how I felt and to do so as clearly as I could."

In 2002, when Laura Bush was in Prague on her first overseas trip alone, she delivered a 13-minute address on Radio Free Europe in which she stumped for women's rights in Afghanistan. "I want you to know that the isolation the Taliban regime forced on you is not normal," she said. "Before the Taliban, women were elected representatives in Afghanistan's parliament and women were a vital part of Afghanistan's life. I hope you will be again, because a society can only achieve its full potential when all of its members participate." The comments were broadcast to 28 countries, including Afghanistan.

In 2005, Bush followed up with a visit, under heavy security, to a teacher training institute.

"When I first interviewed with her in 2004, that was the first thing she said, 'I want to go to Afghanistan,' " recalls Anita McBride, her chief of staff from 2005 to 2009. "She'd been talking about going. She'd been meeting with Afghan women quietly at the White House. But she had been prevented from going for a number of reasons. That was my first responsibility."

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In embarking on her first solo trip, Obama is following an agenda that her staff will describe only in the broadest of terms: It is meant to underscore "the president's commitment to advancing mutual interests, mutual respect and mutual responsibility between nations and peoples around the world."

But in the days before her departure, the East Wing got more specific and more ambitious, declaring the trip "the kickoff of the first lady's international agenda," with a focus on "youth engagement." Most of the world's population is under the age of 25, said an administration official, and "as a society we have a responsibility to support and nurture them."

Obama will be in Mexico City for a total of about 40 hours and is not expected to travel outside the capital. She will speak to young people -- from primary-school students to recent college graduates -- encouraging them to become active in their communities and take responsibility for their own future.

The Obama White House, over the course of a year and a half, has been particularly attentive to Mexico, and the first lady's trip underscores the breadth and depth of this country's relationship with its southern neighbor. According to the White House, 1 million people cross the U.S.-Mexico border every day and $1 billion in trade passes through that border every 24 hours.

When President Obama traveled to Mexico in April 2009, he noted: "There is a reason why the first visit that I had with a foreign leader after my election was with President [Felipe] Calderón. It was a reminder, as John F. Kennedy said, that the bonds between our two countries cannot be broken."

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