In the first three months of her husband’s second term, Michelle Obama has made a splash as fashion icon, entertainer, cover girl. Her “The Evolution of Mom Dancing” video with Jimmy Fallon has racked up more than 15 million views on YouTube, and she’s back on the cover of the sartorial mag Vogue. But if this makes people think she’s settling for “soft power,” avoiding the tough issues — recent moves have shown this isn’t so.
To the first lady’s conventional issues — healthy food, exercise and military families — add violence against youth. On April 10, she will attend a youth violence event in Chicago, moving close to the gun-control debate, one of the year’s most contentious political issues. Obama will urge business and civil leaders in her home town “to invest in expanded opportunities for youth across Chicago’s neighborhoods,” members of her staff said.
This comes a couple of months after she hosted the parents of Chicago teenager Hadiya Pendleton in her box during her husband’s State of the Union speech. Hadiya, 15, was killed in January when a gunman opened fire on her and other teens while they were hanging out at a park in Chicago. (Hadiya’s mom and younger brother have been invited back to the White House for the Easter Egg Roll on Monday.) While Obama is unlikely to talk about gun control, gun violence is a problem in Chicago. Last year, Chicago police recorded more than 2,300 shooting incidents.
The event, which will be hosted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), comes as the first lady — who has always seemed approachable while staying keenly on message — is in the middle of a period of strategic planning. The effort, headed by her communications director, Kristina Schake, will help determine how Obama moves forward in the next four years.
“There’s a group of people who think in the second term, a first lady should step up her game and cultivate a more international profile,” said Emily Bernard, a professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Vermont who co-authored “Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs.” “I would rather not see her abandon homegrown issues.”
Far from abandoning them, Obama has pressed forward with concrete steps. In February, she announced a program to bring physical activity back to schools, supported by $50 million from Nike. That month, she also penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed calling healthy food a good investment for businesses.
“She’s brought unprecedented interest to the childhood obesity issue,” said Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “My hope is that [the dialogue Obama started] will result in significant advances in policy in the second term.”
The “Joining Forces” program, which Obama leads alongside Jill Biden, continues to include visits to military families and warm words of thanks — a nod to Obama’s role as a wartime first lady.
But a few weeks back, she attended a luncheon meeting of the chief executives of the Business Roundtable, where she gave a data-laden speech about the need to for companies to hire veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (Obama was the second first lady to address the group; Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first during her failed push for the Clinton administration’s health-care reform in the mid-1990s.)
After her speech, UPS, whose chief executive is a member of the Business Roundtable, pledged to hire more than 25,000 veterans over the next five years. Earlier this year, Obama and Biden met with governors at the White House to urge them to ease veterans’ reentry into the workforce by giving them credit for military training and experience.
Obama has often said she favors measurable accomplishments over symbolic impact. Her staff members say her signature efforts — aimed at lowering childhood obesity rates and garnering support for military families — change the culture in the way that her clothing choices have rippled through the fashion industry. Everything she does has a message attached, an aide said, answering critics who have called performances such as the dancing video with Fallon frivolous.
The first lady does not regularly sit down with the reporters who cover her, but she told journalists traveling with her recently that children would remain central to her second-term agenda.
“Kids need to be engaged, not just intellectually. They need more than just to do well on test scores. They need to have something else in life to look forward to,” Obama told the Associated Press in February after an event promoting her “Let’s Move!” program.
Obama’s office has been a place of relative calm in the White House, with few changes after a rocky start four years ago that saw her quickly replace her first chief of staff. Two longtime aides, Director of Policy and Projects Jocelyn Frye and Deputy Communications Director Semonti Stephens, left recently. Their departures were an indication of time served, not unhappiness in the ranks, an aide said. Christina Tchen, who has roots in the West Wing and has known Michelle Obama for more than 20 years, has served as the first lady’s chief of staff since January 2011.