President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive to welcome Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha Cameron to the White House prior to a state dinner. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Hine’s lecture, part of a black studies conference at the university last week, argued that the first lady is a “transformative, liberationist” figure — despite her interest in domestic issues and the long list of magazine cover stories focused on topics such as Obama’s approach to motherhood or the importance of healthful eating.

“I caution: Let us not be distracted by a first lady draped in gowns, gracing the covers of women’s magazine’s from ‘Essence’ to ‘Vogue’ or a first lady on her knees planting a White House garden or a first lady jumping double-dutch rope with an array of young girls,” Hine said. “Rather let us appreciate the paradox.”

That paradox is rooted in the soft-focus lens that Obama is viewed through, which clouds the genuine policy gains Obama is making, said Hine, who is co-editor of a reader in black women’s history.

The professor suggests that Michelle Obama’s work is not taken seriously enough. Obama, a popular and high-profile first lady, has appeared frequently on daytime talk shows and been a fairly regular figure on Nickelodeon. She came into office declaring herself mom-in-chief and has pushed back against suggestions that she is a power player in the White House.

“What you think you see and know of her may not be all that is important to know about her,” Hine said in an interview after her lecture. “People see her as these labels – black and woman – and they see her acting in domestic ways – focused on home, hearth and family – as if there is no political agenda.”

The political agenda, along with helping her husband’s reelection campaign, is focused on impacting the next generation.

Hine, a historian, also puts Obama in line with a long list of black women who have worked in health care. Reaching back to the 1800s when Susan McKinney Steward became the third African American woman to earn a medical degree, Hine said she sees a straight line to the first lady’s advocacy of healthful eating and push against childhood obesity.

“She is using the politics of self-development, neighborliness, and that will lead the the future election of just and humane individuals,” Hine said. “The lives you save today will make the changes that you suggest to them in the future.”

The full impact of Michelle Obama, as with all modern political figures, might not be known for generations.