Michelle and Barack Obama in Oslo, Nobel Peace ceremony
First Lady Michelle Obama boarded Air Force One with her husband Wednesday night and flew to Oslo, Norway for her fifth overseas trip this year. She was in the audience when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on Thursday, an improbable award at this early stage of his presidency, but in line with the unlikely journey the couple has undertaken. It was three years ago this December that then-Sen. Barack Obama firmed up his self-described “audacious” bid to make history.
After two years of campaigning at her mate’s side, Mrs. Obama became first lady on Jan. 21, 2009, with a fierce desire not to repeat well-documented mistakes she made on the campaign trail. Once in the White House, she did not want to be a distraction: the campaign flap over her remark about loving America for the “first time” during her husband’s candidacy and being portrayed as an angry liberal taught her a lesson. She was determined to spend time with her young daughters, doing the soccer-mom thing — shielding them as best she could from the inherent un-normalcy of a childhood in the White House.
While President Obama has no choice but to take on a heaping agenda — two lengthy and difficult wars, the Great Recession, a historic legislative battle of attrition over health care, and the U.S. response to global warming — Mrs. Obama’s plate could be as full or light as she chose. So far, Mrs. Obama has charted a careful and calibrated course.
It took awhile for us to discern this. Partly this is because, when it comes to fashion, Mrs. Obama tosses caution aside and is aggressively, if tastefully, flamboyant. Entire blogs have sprung up devoted to charting Mrs. Obama’s iconic clothing. With her tall, thin figure and buff arms on display, whether she’s sporting designer gowns or wearing pedal pushers, Mrs. Obama has followed trends as much as set them. In this way, she reminds us of Jacqueline Kennedy — although her style is all her own. Mrs. Obama loves wide belts and stylish sneakers. In May, she was volunteering at a Washington food bank wearing a J. Crew cardigan and Capri pants, but her $540 tennis shoes became the story. In April, Mrs. Obama went up against Carla Sarkozy, the former model who is the wife of the French president, at the Palais Rohan in Strasbourg, France. It was a draw.
That’s as good as it gets for an American first lady and Mrs. Obama is winding up a successful first year.
Popular With the People
As she enters the stretch run of her first year in the White House, Mrs. Obama’s popularity ratings are higher in public opinion surveys than the president’s. In a Fox News poll conducted Nov. 17-18, some 63 percent of respondents said they had a favorable opinion of Mrs. Obama. That’s down from her high of 73 percent in another Fox News poll taken April 22-23, but it’s still more than 10 points higher than her husband’s rating. Moreover, it shows how that careful calibration is succeeding: a Fox News poll taken in June of 2008 — in the midst of a bruising political campaign — showed Mrs. Obama with only a 44 percent positive rating.
By way of comparison, Mrs. Obama’s favorables are higher than former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton — now the secretary of state — when she was in the White House. Between August 1996 and November 2000, Mrs. Clinton’s favorables ranged from a high of 63 percent in January 1999 (during President Clinton’s impeachment trial) to a low of 43 percent, in October 2000, according to the Fox News tracking polls. (Former First Lady Laura Bush’s favorables ranged from a low of 57 percent in February 2001 to a high of 78 percent in December 2002.)
Mrs. Obama only got out of her lane once, and she crashed. That’s when she took on the job of selling Chicago’s bid for the 2016 summer Olympics to the International Olympics Committee, recruiting her pal Oprah Winfrey to join her in Copenhagen. That occasioned the only press conference of her tenure as first lady, held at the White House prior to her departure with a small group of reporters writing about the Olympics. The president found time to join her in Denmark to help pitch Chicago to the IOC. There, she made a personal, emotional plea for the Summer Games, recounting her girlhood on the South Side of Chicago, not far from some of the proposed Olympic venues. But the Chicagoans were unceremoniously rejected by the IOC. In hindsight, the White House, including the first lady’s staff, were the victims of some very poor intelligence. In truth, Chicago’s bid never stood a chance. It was an embarrassing lesson, and one Mrs. Obama seems unwilling to risk happening again.
In No Rush
While the West Wing got off to a fast start after the inauguration, Mrs. Obama was in no hurry. She wanted to settle daughters Malia and Sasha in their new school, the private and exclusive Sidwell Friends. Her mother, Marian Robinson, moved into the White House to help out. It was billed as temporary at first, but she settled in with the rest of the family and is now a fixture; the day before Thanksgiving, Mrs. Robinson was at a Washington food pantry with the rest of the family handing out groceries.
Mrs. Obama has kept her issue portfolio small, focused on substantive but safe topics. Some of these are cosmic, some are what George W. Bush used to call “small ball.” Mrs. Obama has stressed opening the White House to Washington-area students. She has been making the rounds of federal agencies, giving a pep talk at each visit and giving her props to federal workers. She has also promoted the notions of community service, balancing work and family, and helping veterans and military families, an agenda item she shares with Second Lady Jill Biden. She has hosted a White House music series and, in recent months, added a White House mentoring project for high school girls, taking her act on the road to spread the project to Denver. There, she told girls that, as a kid, she was nervous and anxious when she took tests.
Healthy eating is major piece of Mrs. Obama’s portfolio, with its subsidiary policy elements — childhood obesity and exercise. By now, millions of Americans have heard about Mrs. Obama’s kitchen garden on the South Lawn, a project that let her neatly tie together a variety of her agendas against a photogenic backdrop. The garden provided grist for a variety of storylines, ranging from inviting elementary students over to the White House to championing locally produced food. Mrs. Obama has noted wryly that when she has traveled overseas people invariably inquired about the garden — unless they asked about the family dog, Bo.
She has spoken out in support of the Obama health care proposals, but kept away from any of the controversial elements. For a woman who came out of progressive politics, Michelle Obama has yet to say a word about some of the potential abortion coverage curbs in the pending legislation. That’s because she knows — as does the three-woman press staff that guards her image — that if she said something, it would be news, and news is not what they want to make, unless it is something very safe. She appeared, for example, with Elmo and Big Bird on “Sesame Street.”
Mrs. Obama is so averse to controversy that she goes to what seem to be awkward extremes. Last month, after the murders at Fort Hood, Tex., her comments in response simply did not mention the shooting spree, allegedly carried out by an Army psychiatrist.
In these past months, we’ve gotten to know Mrs. Obama a little bit better. She can be fun — a heck of a hula-hooper, we learned at a White House health fair. She dressed up as a cat lady during Halloween. She took her girls to France and England for a grand summer vacation. She learned, as we did, through a newspaper account about some of her roots. In a much-read interview, the first couple opened up, albeit a bit-guardedly, about some strains in their marriage. Some things have been beyond Mrs. Obama’s control, including a racist picture of her on a Google page (since removed) and unauthorized dolls in her likeness.
One controversy I unwittingly caused. In July on Politics Daily I put together a list of Mrs. Obama’s East Wing staffers and their salaries, triggering a debate in the blogosphere about the size of her staff.
Mrs. Obama’s East Wing oversees social events; the first state dinner last month was crashed by a publicity-hungry couple, throwing a cloud over her friend, Social Secretary Desiree Rogers. I think that will pass.
Mrs. Obama has gotten a few breaks even when she flirted with controversy. When she met the Queen of England, she put her arm around her, a supposed breach of protocol. But the queen warmed to her embrace, as have a majority of Americans — even if that embrace is given with eyes wide open, and a bit guardedly.