In the East Wing, the talk sometimes turns to Michelle Obama’s legacy.
Nearly 100 days in, Obama’s aides look 100 years out and see a signature achievement they believe will last – the kitchen garden at the White House.
It might not seem like much, a small patch of earth to grow some vegetables. But aides say Obama wanted the garden because it signifies more – from the importance of healthful eating, to getting schoolkids outdoors to help, to making the White House seem more accessible. Those are some of the themes – practical, sensible, maternal even – that Obama has embraced in her new role.
The transformation from candidate’s wife into first lady is complex, just like the expectations and duties placed on whoever holds the job. But it is through the garden and a series of other events – some tightly scripted, others spontaneous, even a course correction or two – that Michelle Obama has begun to fill out her image in the public mind, and the public has embraced her in return.
Americans use words to describe Michelle Obama that are similar to those they used to describe Laura Bush eight years ago – nice, classy and intelligent. But they also see Obama as strong, elegant and confident – different from Bush, who was seen as conservative and quiet.
“She has come in as a first lady who is dynamic, who is a professional and strong, but there is something about the way she is handling the issues that make her seem like an everywoman,” said Michelle D. Bernard, of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum. “She shows that you can go to Princeton, you can go to Harvard and work at University of Chicago and still be a spouse and not be diminished. She’s made it clear that she is mom in chief and that she’s also incredibly talented.”
Day One: Everymom
On Inauguration Day, daughters Malia and Sasha were well-behaved and excited, but not too excited – just the way parents around the country would hope their own kids would behave. Sasha even gave her dad the thumbs up after he took the oath. Michelle was beaming.
On that day, moms “saw in her a piece of themselves. Someone you could run into at the grocery store, or see her at the girls’ schools, meeting with their teachers,” said Susan Kane, editor in chief of Parenting magazine. “She shared her family’s biggest moment with the world and every step of the way left America with a sense that her family was in this together, not just dad leading mom leading the kids.”
Protector in chief
Michelle Obama had barely been in the White House a week when “Sweet Sasha” and “Marvelous Malia” plush dolls began flying off store shelves, from the same company that made Beanie Babies.
Her office issued a terse response, calling it “inappropriate to use young private citizens for marketing purposes,” and it was clear that as first lady, Obama would draw a tight circle around her family, no matter the public’s off-the-charts interest in all things Obama. The company backed down, changing the names of the dolls.
“When she got upset about the dolls, it resonated with the idea that her priorities seem to be maintaining normalcy rather than being a celebrity,” said Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew Research Center, whose latest poll shows Michelle Obama’s favorability at 76 percent. “Most people can’t identify with holding state dinners or speaking to groups. We can identify with the choices that parents make, and that is how people connect, through a shared experience. That moment stood out.”
Cover girl, from People to The New Yorker
For about two weeks, starting with her turn on the cover of Vogue (demure but glam) and then her sleeveless-in-winter look at her husband’s address before Congress, the buzz was all about Michelle’s buff arms. The East Wing brushed it off – she wears what’s comfy, her aides said.
The magazines became top sellers (available now on eBay) and helped her displace Oprah to become America’s new favorite girlfriend – a woman whose style ran from suburban-mom-friendly Gap to trendy designers and everything in between.
“It said, this is a whole new first lady,” said Mandi Norwood, author of the upcoming “Michelle Style: Celebrating the First Lady of Fashion.” “I can’t imagine Oprah Winfrey being shoved to one side by anybody else except Michelle Obama.”
To stump or not to stump
Michelle Obama had to figure out just how political she should be as first lady – and, after an early foray into campaign-style stumping, decided to dial it back.
Her team had discussed the idea of reaching out to federal agencies with Laura Bush’s team and took it a bit further – deciding on a thank-you tour, with 10 visits in all so far. But in the first visit, just weeks after her husband took office, she still had on her campaign hat – even falling back on phrases like “fired up, ready to go!” straight off the stump.
At least one first lady expert sniffed that it was a bit too political, and in subsequent visits, the stumping was less pronounced. That kind of distancing from issues also was apparent on Take Your Child to Work Day, when she said she’d simply wake up her husband if something bad happened to the country.
“I’d tell him, ‘Hey, buddy, you’re the president, get down to the Oval Office and call some leaders.’ You know, that’s the beauty of my job. I’m married to the president, and he has to worry about all that,” she said, outlining what the president would do. “And then I’d go back to sleep and ask him how it turned out when I woke up the next morning.”
Reaching out to military families
In her first solo trip on East Wing business outside the District, Michelle Obama went to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, making good on a promise during the campaign and highlighting one of the issues of her official platform. Republicans once tried to paint her as somehow unpatriotic and angry – but here the response was warm and enthusiastic.
She read to kids, hung out with soldiers over lunch, met privately with families and promised to hang a picture of a soldier departing for war in her East Wing office – a way to show that she and her husband cared about the soldiers he was sending to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“She was the kindest person, someone that you could sit down on a couch and talk with for hours, and she would be interested in what you were saying. That surprised me. She came in like a neighbor,” said Joanne Chavonne, founder of Fayetteville Cares, a military families support group.
After the visit, the East Wing contacted Chavonne and told her that the photo of a soldier departing for war that was given to her at Fort Bragg had a spot in Obama’s office.
In the garden
Michelle Obama at first wasn’t even sure she could have a garden at the White House.
The idea dates back to Eleanor Roosevelt and was pushed by green groups, but starting a garden now was Obama’s idea, aides say. But after several meetings with her staff and park service representatives, the garden got the green light, with Michelle insisting that kids have a role and that the garden not be some weed-filled patch, unfit for viewing by visitors.
The networks carried the event live, showing Michelle, with a rake, turning the soil. European papers ran stories about the White House “veggie patch.” Obama said people she meets – even Prince Charles – want to know about the garden.
Michelle on the world stage
Her aides knew fashion easily could dominate her European trip and wanted it to be about more – but they couldn’t have known how big a splash she would make.
Here it was the unscripted moments that fueled the news cycle. Not only did the first lady meet the queen for tea, she ended up arm in the arm with the monarch, giving her an affectionate pat on the back. Buckingham Palace said the interaction was a mutual display of affection – not a breach of protocol.
Then on a visit to a girls’ school, Obama teared up – and aides said she saw herself in those girls, and they saw something in her too. “When I saw her there, my eyes popped,” Brenda Mensah, 16, told a London paper. “And then she gave me this encouraging smile, and my confidence just went up, it went skyrocketing. I’m still flying now.”