Michelle Obama's unfolding legacy

The changing look of Michelle Obama's East Wing circle.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 12:00 AM

In the first and second weeks of January, Michelle Obama gathered her senior staff in her office for a series of three-hour planning meetings that would kick off her third - and busiest - year in the East Wing.

What she saw was a staff in transition and remade at the top levels, a shuffling that mirrored the changes just down the hall in the West Wing.

Susan Sher, her mentor and outgoing chief of staff, sat in on the meetings, but she was heading back to Chicago and handing off her duties to Tina Tchen, another Windy City pal, who had been a top Obama campaign fundraiser in 2008.

Kristina Schake, new to the White House but not to politics, had been on the job for a little over a month, taking over as communications director. The East Wing, she was finding, was inundated with requests and coming off of a two-year run of glossy magazine covers that solidified Michelle the brand.

Over the past two years, Michelle Obama has seen more staff shuffling at the top levels than previous first ladies - three chiefs of staff, two communications directors and the search is on for social secretary No. 3.

It's a smaller operation, so the changes in the East Wing aren't on the scale of those in the West Wing, and they don't reflect the repositioning and campaign preparation that is going on there. But the personnel moves reflect a first lady grappling with inevitable departures from jobs that require long hours and political steel. The moves also reveal a first lady who is upgrading and tweaking her role, and making moot that perennial question - is she more like Hillary or Laura?

'New to the table'

Two years ago, Michelle Obama moved into the White House with less experience at being a political wife than her most recent predecessors but with higher expectations.

She told her staff then that there was little room for mistakes.

Two years later, observers are hard-pressed to find any major flubs, and the first lady has staffed up for Michelle Obama 2.0.

Her message to her newly assembled senior staff has been simple: Keep building and expanding on her signature programs with an eye toward leaving a legacy that would exist across the government and the nation, long after she leaves the White House.

The first lady will have to craft that legacy with a team still finding its way, albeit a team of stronger ties and more open dialogue with the West Wing, often a flash point in any White House.

Asked in a Tuesday interview what the next two years will look like, Obama said, "more."

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