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Michelle Obama's power moves

By Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; 9:03 AM

What a difference a year makes. In 2009, Forbes Magazine ranked first lady Michelle Obama the 40th most powerful woman in the world. But this year she grabbed the top spot.

To get there, Obama leapfrogged over her billionaire pal Oprah Winfrey, took out Beyonce, who sang for the Obamas' first dance at the inaugural ball, and bested Lady Gaga and her high-fashion meat dress.

How to explain Michelle Obama's power surge?

Forbes says that she essentially wrote and filled her own job description by striking a balance between the low-key but highly admired Laura Bush, the co-presidency approach of Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the fashion sense of Jackie Kennedy. All the while, Obama has managed to kept her street cred: Name another first lady who has taken shovel passes in New Orleans from ex-NFLer Eddie George and described dancer Judith Jamison as "fly."

Here are five first-lady power moves, key moments that help explain her rise to the top:

Taking on Fox News: While the West Wing was busy describing the cable news giant as an enemy and an arm of the Republican Party, Obama went right into the belly of the beast, for a sitdown with Mike Huckabee. That appearance, and her turn in Mississippi where she actually got Gov. Haley Barbour (R) to praise the stimulus package proved that she is one of the few bipartisan bright spots of the administration.

Seated with Huckabee in a Philadelphia classroom, Obama touted her anti-childhood-obesity initiative. She was all smiles on the network that had labeled her "Obama's baby mama." And she even made Huckabee, who could very well challenge her husband come 2012, blush a little. After Huckabee pledged to get back on the weight-loss wagon, Obama raised the stakes.

"All right, next interview, shirt off," she said. And with that challenge, Huckabee shot back, "Oh, you don't want that. And on that, we're finished. Boy, are we ever finished."

Naeem Khan's number: Obama's debut as a state dinner hostess was forever marred by the image of a sari-wearing would-be reality-TV star sashaying through the White House. But the first lady brought real fashion muscle that November night, showing off her arms in a gold, off-the-shoulder gown with silver appliques, and sporting a wrist full of bangles.

With the one-of-a-kind dress, worked on by 40 people for four weeks, she served up something for everyone. To the casual observer, Obama probably looked like one of the most glamorous women on the planet. But for the Vogue nerds, by going with a lesser-known designer who has dressed pop starlets, she looked like a fashion insider, effortlessly bringing Hollywood heat to stuffy, plain-Jane Washington. And for politicos up on their international relations, the choice of an Indian American designer proved that fashion isn't frivolous; it's head-turning diplomacy.

The campaign closer returns: The president has called the first lady his better, smarter half and has said that he wouldn't ever want to have to run against her. So he's probably feeling pretty lucky that Michelle, with her high approval ratings, is on his side. She has spent the past few days warming up her campaign engine and preparing to log time with the Democratic base, and to urge her husband's disengaged youth brigade to get "fired up, and ready to go." And she will be able to do it all without a teleprompter.

East Wing aides like to say that her comfort zone is talking about the intersection of people and policy. On the stump, that looks like a happy warrior working the rope line, who can go from talking about Silly Bandz to soaring health-care costs, and dole out hugs along the way.

Military families mojo: Michelle Obama brought what some thought was an odd message to the Clinton Global Initiative, a gathering of corporate and famous do-gooders concerned with ending poverty: Hire veterans to help out the cause, she told the crowd.

The speech was one of the few times she brought her issue to a civilian audience, and it left some in the audience discussing whether it was really the proper venue. But expect to hear more about this issue, which Obama shares with second lady Jill Biden. Her concerns with veterans may or may not have gained traction with the global do-gooder crowd, but the issue has clearly found purchase elsewhere.

When the president's advisers - among them Denis McDonough, chief of staff for the National Security Council - presented him with three options for the 2011 Veterans Affairs budget, Obama chose the costliest option. He explained his decision this way: "I am not going to tell the first lady, after all the conversations we have had, that we had an option of increasing resources for the kinds of investments she is hearing about but we did not take it."

Summer Spain jaunt: The first lady's advisers told her it was not a great idea to take a luxury international vacation in the dog days of summer, when most Americans were planning low-budget staycations. Turns out they were right about the optics. The trip dominated the news cycle for days, with the East and West Wing in full-spin mode, saying it was a "private trip" by a "private citizen." Even Democratic National Committee Chairman Timothy M. Kaine weighed in to defend the getaway.

Was it tone-deaf for Obama to jet off to Spain while her husband had to settle for celebrating his birthday with Oprah, the world's third-most-powerful woman? Yes, politically, but no, culturally and symbolically. With her trip to Spain, the first lady took another page from Jackie Kennedy, declaring that there is life and a world outside the White House, separate and apart from her husband's schedule and the politics of the day. She knew the risk but still took the trip. Strike up the Frank Sinatra.

hendersonn@washpost.com

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