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Michelle Obama's unfolding legacy

The changing look of Michelle Obama's East Wing circle.

"I felt that I made a lot of progress," Sher said. "But I think Tina's going to make more, I think, because everyone is so focused on the need for it and Bill [Daley] wants to make sure it happens." Where Rahm Emanuel seemed to tiptoe around the first lady, one of the first calls Daley made after accepting the job was directly to her, aides said. (By the way, Obama is still a Chicago voter and wouldn't say whether she planned to vote for her husband's former chief of staff in the city's mayoral race.)

Tchen, who had been the director of the Office of Public Engagement, was a ready fit for the East Wing, Obama said, and will make continued integration with the West Wing that much easier.

"I mean, she knows all the players. They know her. She's been in all the meetings. So now she's there with a different role. It makes it easier," Obama said. "So I always say that there are two things new staffers have to do: They have to adjust to the job, and then they have to adjust to the White House." The first lady noted the pace of the place is just faster for outsiders. "So it takes a second just to breathe normally in this environment. . . . You've got to give people a second. Since we didn't have a second - it's nice that Tina . . . knows how to breathe at this altitude."

Wide cultural space

As for her own "breathing" in the fishbowl that can be the White House, Obama said that she, along with her husband, two daughters and mother, had to answer for themselves that question of "How do we breathe in this space?"

Her marriage, which was tested by her husband's political ambitions, she said, remains strong, held together in part by laughter.

"I think in our house we don't take ourselves too seriously, and laughter is the best form of unity I think in a marriage," she said. "So we still find ways to have fun together, and a lot of it is private and personal. But we keep each other smiling, and that's good."

(The president also hasn't touched a cigarette in almost a year, finally making good on his promise to quit, said the first lady, adding: "I'm very proud of him.")

Socially, she has maintained a tight-knit group of friends, some of whom have moved to Washington and work in the administration, and some of whom she has reconnected with since moving here. In November, mixing her social life with politics, she invited a group of 50 women, many from the nonprofit and advocacy world, to a screening of Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls," where they snacked on popcorn and juice and traded hugs and business cards.

"I've never heard of the first lady who almost every day invites people from our community to the White House," said E. Faye Williams, head of the National Congress of Black Women.

Last month, the first lady marked the two-year anniversary of her husband's inauguration by greeting unsuspecting visitors at the White House. It was one part gag, one part ceremonial greeting, the type of Vanna White-style role-playing that every first lady must grin through.

Yet, the guests' reactions suggested that the cultural space Obama occupies is wide indeed.

One man asked her for directions to Ben's Chili Bowl, as if she were just a local, while two black women wept at the very sight of her.

On the fashion front, she continues to draw attention and headlines for every outfit, no matter the circumstance - New York Magazine's Web site ran an item titled "Michelle Obama Observed a Moment of Silence in Narciso Rodriguez" when she donned a blue overcoat in the wake of the Tucson shootings. And her choice of a floor-length Alexander McQueen gown for the state dinner honoring China drew scrutiny from conservatives for its color (red), and some in the fashion industry balked that she went with a British design house. She denied reports that she has changed her stylist, Ikram Goldman.

"I like to patronize American designers, and the vast majority of the clothes that I wear are. But there are a lot of other designers that have cute stuff, too. So I don't think that I'm any different from any other woman other than the fact that people see what I wear and then they talk about it," she said.

"But my decisions aren't so complex. It's really just sort of: 'How cold is it? Do I have to stand outside?' and 'What am I going to use to cover my arms if I'm freezing so I'm not shivering while I have to give a speech?' It's really stuff like that."

Obama said that, midway through her husband's term, she has found her stride.

"We've just been here for two years. The first year, everything is new, everything is unknown, everything is unclear. Now I have better clarity about what my role is going to be. Our agenda is clearer," she said. "We know who we are, we know where we're going."

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