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Michelle Obama's unfolding legacy

By Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; C01

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."

More politics, to be sure, but her travel schedule, which will take her on campaign trips and foreign visits, is far from being mapped out. "I'll be pushing it off as much as I can," she said of her electioneering. Her own goals appear to be more clear: "I have a pretty big agenda over the next couple of years," she said at a luncheon with reporters in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House.

As for her new top staffers, who are getting used to Obama's early morning e-mails and her lawyerly ways in staff meetings, the first lady said that "each transition has brought something new to the table in a good way."

"I need people who know me, but people who don't know me and will push me and push me to think differently and say, 'Oh, that doesn't make sense,' and 'You've been talking about that for a year, but have you thought about it this way?' " she said. "They just look at you in a different way, look at things that you've been doing, and that's always energizing."

She is marking the one-year anniversary of her anti-childhood-obesity campaign, Let's Move, with a media blitz, and she is set to roll out a public-service announcement and travel to Atlanta on Wednesday for a major speech on parental involvement.

On March 1, Obama will unveil a more focused campaign around military families, an issue that she first took up during her husband's campaign for the White House. Over the last two years, she has been working on the issue with the vice president's wife, Jill Biden, as they met with families and advocacy groups on bases and in military hospitals.

"She has become an issues expert," Schake said. "She knows who the leading voices are, knows what the priorities are, and is very well versed."

In Schake, she has a new communications director, who is herself from a military family, as well as an outsider - she spent the last four years doing media relations for California's former first lady, Maria Shriver. Schake's challenge will be to ramp up a communications staff that already has Oprah Winfrey on speed dial but must craft new approaches to getting out Obama's message. Last year the first lady received some rare criticism, when former Alaska governor Sarah Palin used the first lady's anti-obesity program as an example of government overreach and the nanny state run amok.

"I don't think about her in this initiative," Obama said, brushing off Palin's criticism and focusing instead on GOP supporters of her initiative. "Mike Huckabee took the lead on this issue when he was the governor of Arkansas. I mean, he had one of the most forward-thinking programs out of any state on obesity because he lived it."

Along with bipartisan backing, Obama has managed to get some corporate buy-in for her program as well, announcing last month with Wal-Mart that the super-grocer would offer lower priced fruits and vegetables and healthier food choices to its millions of shoppers.

West Wing connection

In tapping Tchen, who is from the first lady's circle of Chicagoans and remains a good friend of presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett, Obama has added someone steeped in the West Wing, with close ties to Bill Daley, the president's new chief of staff.

The East Wing's initial chief of staff, Jackie Norris, was a campaign carry-over, and after her short stint, Obama brought in Sher, a former hospital administrator boss with whom the future first lady had shared many lunch breaks and family stories over the years.

Connecting the East and West wings was Sher's charge, and she admitted there was more work to be done.

"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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