Every Christmas season, first ladies have visited sick children at Children’s National Medical Center. It’s a White House tradition dating back to Bess Truman, who was photographed more than 60 years ago sitting primly beside a young boy, her gloved hands clasped on her lap.
For the past eight years, Michelle Obama has gamely read “The Night Before Christmas” to the children there. But this year, like nearly everything Obama has done recently, she made it into an event.
She arrived at the hospital last week with Sunny, her dog, and Ryan Seacrest, the “American Idol” host whose daily radio show reaches more than 20 million listeners.
“So Ryan and I are going to read together,” she told the children. “You guys ready?”
Seacrest has interviewed Obama many times over the years, providing her a wide-reaching, friendly and unchallenging platform to promote her husband’s health-care agenda and campaign for Hillary Clinton. It is one of many collaborations with non-news media celebrities that have enhanced her stardom beyond the confines of politics — and which she may well continue to leverage when she no longer holds the title of first lady.
And it is a model of engaging with the public that we will likely see carried on by Melania and Ivanka Trump, who will enter the White House with years-long connections to glossy magazines and celebrity culture.
Obama’s media team, composed of five young women, has fostered these kinds of media relationships, working behind the scenes to build the first lady’s image with carefully crafted appearances, silly comedic skits and stage-managed events that target the audiences Obama wants to reach with her advocacy work promoting healthful eating and exercise, supporting military families and encouraging young people to pursue higher education.
The goal has been to “keep breaking through,” said Caroline Adler Morales, her communications director. Now the first lady and her team are racing against the clock for a final push of “the Obama brand,” as the former White House social secretary Desirée Rogers once called it.
Like Jacqueline Kennedy, who artfully promoted the “Camelot” image that came to characterize her husband’s presidency, Obama has been instrumental in shaping her family’s public profile. Since the summer, her East Wing team has overseen the premiere of a CNN documentary advocating for girls’ education starring the first lady, orchestrated her third cover shoot for Vogue magazine, held a roundtable with mom bloggers from PopSugar and hosted a tea with cooking star Ina Garten during the final harvest of her White House garden.
The pace has continued as she heads for the exit, and Obama’s long farewell tour has taken on new urgency following the election of Donald Trump. On Monday night, her final White House interview with Oprah Winfrey will air. In an excerpt released by CBS News, Winfrey asked whether she believes the Obama administration was able to achieve the “hope” it promoted.
“Yes, I do,” Obama said, “because we feel the difference now. See, now we’re feeling what not having hope feels like.”
Three days before the Children’s Hospital event, the first lady brought Disney Channel stars including Cameron Boyce of the sitcom “Jessie” and Madison Hu of “Bizaardvark” — to help her sort toys donated for needy kids. While the young actors were in town, they taped a public service announcement with Obama that will air this month on ABC, the Disney Channel and Disney XD.
It was coordinated by Morales and the other members of the media team, who have taken on a central role in all of Obama’s activities.
The tightknit group sharing space in the East Wing includes the first lady’s press secretary Joanna Rosholm, formerly a regional press staffer for the president; Tiffany Drake, a presidential management fellow who started her career as a Hollywood publicist; Lauren Vrazilek, who publicizes Obama’s education and military programs; and Kelsey Donohue, who oversees digital media.
They say the first lady often challenges them to “go bigger” when it comes to their communications efforts. And the motivation for the push is clear: Public surveys suggest that first ladies “can influence the way people perceive the president, the president’s policy agenda and presidential candidates,” said political scientist Lauren Wright, author of “On Behalf of the President.”
Their office, overlooking Kennedy’s garden, is decorated with poster-size images of Obama on magazine covers, vintage post cards of the White House and old copies of Life magazine with Eleanor Roosevelt on the cover.
A big calendar marked by blue, pink, yellow and green highlighting tracks the magazine covers that will soon publish, the upcoming television interviews, events with celebrity friends, the first lady’s coming appearances — and the messages each are geared to send.
“Unlike the West Wing, we have the benefit of not having to be reactive [to current events], but we still have to have a pulse on the news of the day in terms of what is going to break through and when,” Rosholm said.
They meet with Obama regularly and take their cues from her. In her final weeks in the White House, the first lady’s instructions have been to plow forward.
The first lady has been a coveted talk-show guest for eight years, said Stephanie Cutter, a former Obama White House adviser. “Once she gave her convention speech in 2008, she took on an iconic status,” Cutter said. “Requests started to pour in, and once she became the first lady, she was very smart in the way that she scheduled her appearances and what appearances she did.”
Obama has continued to be choosy about which media requests she accepts, and her media team is the first line of denial for interview requests. After her husband’s first term in the White House, Obama stopped doing sit-down interviews with traditional news-oriented journalists who cover her.
She and her team decided that her time was best spent with media personalities that reached the younger audiences and families with whom she wanted to connect. In those interviews, Obama gets a softer focus and no tough questions. It is a similar playbook to that of the West Wing, which has also favored non-news media outlets for one-on-one interviews.
Obama also tapped into the culture’s deep interest in fame. She believes in celebrity “amplification” of her messages and has reached out personally to ask famous friends to help her boost her initiatives, Morales said.
When her media team promoted a celebration of the first lady’s health awareness campaign with a challenge called “Gimme Five,” they had planned to invite a relatively small number of Obama’s famous supporters to demonstrate how they stay healthy. But Obama decided to expand the list. Eventually, they had Beyoncé sharing a workout video on Instagram, Seacrest doing squat-thrust exercises on camera, and Conan O’Brien doing chin-ups alongside comedian Kevin Hart.
Her approach seems to have worked. Obama remains more popular than her husband. Nearly three-quarters of the public have a favorable opinion of her, according to the Pew Research Center.
The first lady’s final appearances have nearly all included opportunities for her celebrity-media pals. Seacrest was a natural fit for the Children’s Hospital event, Rosholm said, because he gave a radio studio to the hospital last year from which they could broadcast.
Winfrey, who conducted the unofficial exit interview, earlier lent her star power to the White House as a featured speaker at an Obama administration women’s conference.
Obama has said that she is not sure what she will do next but that interesting offers are rolling in. As her family settles into a new home in Washington, she has said, she will take time to consider the options — but will not go quietly into retirement.