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Hints of agenda and tone for new first lady

As Michelle Obama prepares to become first lady, a role with the power to influence the nation’s sense of identity, outlines of her style and agenda have begun to emerge.
Image: The Obama's head to church on Inauguration day.
President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle depart Blair House for St. John's Episcopal Church, just hours before Obama takes the oath of office on Jan. 20.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

She celebrated her 45th birthday in a vintage train car, amid balloons and crepe-paper streamers, and cheering crowds serenaded her by name.

She danced in front of the Lincoln Memorial to Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” with her husband and daughters clapping by her side. She assembled care packages for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, in this long, whirlwind weekend, marveled that she would soon be the public face of America’s first family.

On Inauguration Day, Michelle Obama will become the first African-American to assume the role of first lady, a woman with the power to influence the nation’s sense of identity, its fashion trends, its charitable causes and its perceptions of black women and their families. Already, the outlines of her style and public agenda have begun to emerge.

She has hired a politically seasoned team of advisers and an interior decorator committed to creating a family-friendly feel in her elegant new home. She has sketched out a vision of a White House brimming with children and ordinary Americans while suggesting she may delegate some traditional first lady duties to her staff: food tastings, china selection and the like.

She has decided to shape her public program with the help of a policy director who has raised concerns about instances of systemic employment bias against minorities and called for tougher enforcement of antidiscrimination laws, contentious issues in the workplace.

And she has highlighted the warm, informal tone that she hopes will characterize her time in the executive mansion by signing e-mail messages to supporters simply as “Michelle.”

Formulating 'her own bully pulpit'
Mrs. Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer and a former hospital executive, has made it clear that her two young daughters will be her biggest priority. The causes she has promised to promote — expanding volunteerism and supporting military families and working parents — fall squarely into the realm of platforms traditionally championed by first ladies. But the staff she has assembled is also clearly prepared to tackle a tougher issues-oriented program.

“Her experience will guide the kinds of things she does, and her personal experience is unique for a first lady,” said Paul Schmitz, a longtime friend. “She understands the needs of low-income communities. She understands the needs of women. She has balanced raising a family with a career.”

“She’ll think deeply about how to use her own bully pulpit,” said Mr. Schmitz, who heads Public Allies, a nonprofit leadership-training network for young adults. “And I think that’s the challenge. You are now the most prominent woman in America. What does that mean? What do you do?”

It is a difficult question, particularly since Mrs. Obama is still grappling with how life in the grand house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will transform her family’s existence.

She has grown accustomed to being in the spotlight — with Secret Service agents accompanying her to private lunches with her girlfriends — and has consulted with Laura Bush and former first ladies Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Reagan and Rosalynn Carter. But she has no experience with the day-to-day details of life in the White House.

President Bush and his wife were old hands at White House living because they had visited often when Mr. Bush’s father, George Bush, was running the country.

New reality 'mind-boggling'
Mrs. Obama visited the private residence in the White House for the first time in November after the election. She grew up in a tiny apartment and marveled recently when she and her close friend Valerie Jarrett pored over photographs of the 15 bedrooms in the presidential mansion.

“You have to pinch yourself to think that that’s home,” said Ms. Jarrett, who is also one of President-elect Barack Obama’s closest advisers.

Craig Robinson, Mrs. Obama’s brother, described the Obamas’ new reality as “mind-boggling.”

“Every time I talk to her, I’m like, ‘What are you doing now?’ ” said Mr. Robinson, who has delighted in his sister’s accounts of her days in Washington before the move to the White House. “We are such novices at this. I’m just trying to find out, How many bathrooms are in there?”

(The answer is 34, according to William Seale, a historian who has written about the White House.)

Mrs. Obama has the highest favorability ratings of any incoming first lady since 1980, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll completed Thursday. Forty-six percent of those surveyed had a favorable opinion of her. Seven percent had an unfavorable view.

Gossip magazines, cable networks and major newspapers vie for tiny details about her and her daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. The designer of Mrs. Obama’s inaugural gown? (Sorry, no word yet.) Her favorite musician of all time? (Yes, Stevie Wonder.) Where in the White House is Malia likely to gather her thoughts when she has a tough school assignment? (At Lincoln’s desk where he penned the Gettysburg Address.)

Mrs. Obama, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has reached out directly to supporters via e-mail and YouTube. And she has taken care in recent months to strike the right notes, emphasizing a preference for American fashion designers and announcing plans to use “affordable brands and products” as she redecorates the White House during this recession.

She knows that life under the microscope carries its perils.

After some rhetorical stumbles during the presidential campaign, Mrs. Obama was criticized by conservative columnists who accused her of being unpatriotic and bitter toward whites. Her approval ratings have soared since she refocused her image on her role as a wife and mother, but she still comes under periodic attack from conservative bloggers and others.

“There will be some people trying to pick holes,” Mr. Robinson said. “We’re used to that.”

Mrs. Obama’s diverse team, which includes former Congressional staff members and strategists from Democratic presidential campaigns, seems equally prepared to hone her message or deflect attack.

Jackie Norris, her chief of staff, served as a senior adviser in Iowa for the presidential campaigns of Mr. Obama and former Vice President Al Gore. Melissa Winter, her deputy chief of staff, spent 18 years on Capitol Hill.

Jocelyn Frye, her policy director, is general counsel for at the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington, a nonprofit that advocates for workplace equity. Camille Johnston, her communications director, worked on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns and served as press secretary for two cabinet officials. And her press secretary, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, worked for Mrs. Clinton when she was first lady and was deputy communications director for Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

By contrast, Laura Bush’s first chief of staff came straight from the Governor’s Mansion in Texas and knew little about national or Washington politics, and her press aides have typically lacked national media experience, according to a former Bush administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

While many of Mrs. Obama’s advisers do not have White House experience and may have initial difficulties navigating its bureaucracy, the official said the staff was far more politically seasoned than Mrs. Bush’s team. “She’s trying to get the best people, pulling in the cream of the crop,” the official said of Mrs. Obama.

The new first lady will also have clear channels to the West Wing, counting close friends among the president-elect’s advisers, including Ms. Jarrett and Susan Sher, who is associate counsel. They could be key allies should she choose to weigh in on policy issues she cares about. (She has said that she plans to leave the business of governing to her husband.)

'Mom in chief'
Mrs. Obama has focused publicly in recent months on her self-described role of “mom in chief,” settling her daughters at Sidwell Friends School and persuading her mother to move into the White House. She has made a point of hiring a chief of staff and a chef who regularly wrestle with the challenges faced by working mothers.

But the disciplined, no-nonsense executive also comes through.

While Mrs. Bush often hand-picked the silver, china and tablecloths for White House dinners, Mrs. Obama is more likely to focus on the broad themes of such events, delegating the details, Ms. Jarrett said. (Mr. Robinson said that while his sister typically cooked for her girls, she might be happy to delegate that for a while, too.)

She wants a home that is gracious, with 20th-century art amid the antiques, but comfortable for children. As a former community organizer, she also wants the White House to be more accessible to ordinary Americans, envisioning picnics that might include local children as well as state dinners.

“She wants it to be fun and to bring a sense of youth and style,” said Ms. Sher, Mrs. Obama’s friend.

Mrs. Obama also wants the White House to feel like home. She has spent her entire life in Chicago, aside from her years in college and law school. And when her closest friends prepared to hold a goodbye lunch in her honor, she asked only for keepsakes and personal mementos.

So her friends brought snapshots in small frames, photographs of Mrs. Obama with her family, colleagues and friends in Chicago.

Ms. Sher, who attended the lunch, said she did not know if Mrs. Obama had settled on a place for the photos in her new house. But she is not worried.

“She said there’s a lot of room,” Ms. Sher said.

This article, Hints of Agenda and Tone for New First Lady, was published first in The New York Times.