Two sides of Michelle Obama: Savvy campaigner and down-home Everywoman

For Mother's Day, a salute to the importance of the matriarch in the lives of the nation's presidents, vice presidents and first ladies.
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2010

First lady Michelle Obama was in rare campaign form on Wednesday, delivering a political speech at a Democratic National Committee luncheon, before returning to the White House to celebrate Mother's Day with scores of women and girls nibbling on cucumber sandwiches and fruit tartlettes.

The day captured the dual worlds of being first lady, with her assets as an outspoken motivator and as a down-home Everymom each on display.

At midday, Obama embarked on a mission to use her broad appeal for a partisan cause. She stepped onto a stage at a hotel ballroom to rouse some 500 Democratic activists at the DNC's Women's Leadership Forum Conference to help the party win in November's midterm elections.

"We desperately need all of you to stay involved in this work," Obama said, with a no-nonsense voter-turnout message. "You cannot stop -- because we all know that when you need something done, and you ask women to do it, it gets done. End of story."

Obama continued her drive through bursts of laughter and clapping: "And in the months leading up to this November and beyond, we're going to need you to get out there and get it done, because we know that change -- we do know that change doesn't happen overnight. . . . It takes folks like you, folks who are constantly rejecting the cynicism, casting aside the doubts and working day after day to continue what we've already started."

Joined onstage by the vice president's wife, Jill Biden, the first lady highlighted her husband's achievements in his first 15 months in office -- including enacting health-care reform and an economic stimulus package, progress toward halting the spread of nuclear weapons and overhauling student loan systems. She also took a moment to tout Let's Move, her own ambitious initiative to combat childhood obesity.

"Even with all the challenges that we've faced over the past year or so, and all the obstacles that we've had to overcome, we have achieved all of this -- and more -- in just the first 15 months," she said. "So if this is what we can do in 15 months -- did I say 15 months? -- just imagine what we can achieve in the next 15 months. Just imagine what we can do in the next few years."

After rallying Democrats, Obama returned to the White House for an afternoon tea with spouses and mothers of American troops and young women and girls from the first lady's mentoring program.

The guests, all women, sat on gold chairs with lilac seat cushions around circular tables in the State Dining Room. They were surrounded by history -- specifically, the history of women with family ties to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Joining them were former first lady Rosalynn Carter and granddaughter Sarah Carter; President Richard Nixon's daughter Tricia Nixon Cox; and President Dwight D. Eisenhower's granddaughters Susan and Anne Eisenhower. They were served Bolivian, Darjeeling and Earl Grey tea in President George W. Bush's teacups and saucers. The bamboo centerpieces and glassware were from President John F. Kennedy's era.

Even President Abraham Lincoln was there -- looming in an oil painting hanging above Obama's podium.

Obama steered clear of politics in her teatime remarks, instead ruminating on the importance of mothers and female role models in modern society. She got emotional paying tribute to "my mommy," Marian Robinson, who sat quietly at the head table. Michelle Obama said it was special raising her two daughters, Malia and Sasha, with her mother moved in upstairs, and thus three generations of family living in the White House.

"There's no way that I could ever fully measure all that my own mommy has done for me," Obama said, her voice breaking. "This woman who tries to take absolutely no credit for who I am, for some reason -- she is my rock. She has pulled me up when I've stumbled. She's pulled me back when I've run out of line, talking a little too much. She'll snap me up. She really does push me to be the best woman that I can be, truly, as a professional, and as a mother, and as a friend." The first lady had the room's rapt attention and Robinson broke into a proud smile.

"As our family have grown, she's managed to expand her love for all of us," Obama continued. "And raising our girls in the White House with my mom . . . is a beautiful experience. And the opportunity to have three generations living in the White House, it's beautiful. And I'm pretty sure the president is happy about it, too."

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