Michelle Obama: No first-year do-overs

Michelle Obama
"The things that have worked and the things that haven't worked are all a part of making this experience what it is and getting us all ready for this coming year," said first lady Michelle Obama. Jacquelyn Martin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Michelle Obama reflected on her first year in the White House on Wednesday and calmly claimed no need for any do-overs: Even the things that didn't go quite right were part of the learning curve, the first lady said, and that includes the November state dinner penetrated by three party-crashers.

"The evening was so wonderful and it was so well-orchestrated that for me, the other stuff that everybody is talking about is a footnote to what the state dinner actually was," she said. "So I wouldn't do that over."

Overall, Mrs. Obama said, "the things that have worked and the things that haven't worked are all a part of making this experience what it is and getting us all ready for this coming year."

The first lady looked back at the past year during an hourlong conversation with a handful of reporters in the Old Family Dining Room, seated under portraits of two of her predecessors, Frances Cleveland and Edith Roosevelt. With her new bobbed haircut, the first lady arrived wearing a favorite russet-red dress and over-the-knee Jimmy Choo suede boots that she confessed allow her to avoid wearing stockings.

She ticked off a list of achievements for 2009: holding 200-plus White House events, visiting 14 states and eight countries, establishing a garden, creating a mentoring program and more. But she declined to give herself a grade for the year, saying "really, how do you do that? And then what happens after you do it?"

The first lady called 2009 "a good year of listening and learning" and laying the foundation for issues she'll push in 2010 — principally a campaign against childhood obesity.

While Mrs. Obama in the past has used the bully pulpit to promote issues such as healthy eating, national service and mentoring, she will take on a larger role as the point person for an administration-wide fight against childhood obesity, including pushing for changes to the school lunch program. She'll make her pitch to the nation's mayors during a gathering in Washington next week.

Her hope is to ultimately produce measurable changes in obesity rates among youth.

"I want to leave something behind that we can say that because of this time that this person spent here, this thing has changed," she said. "And my hope is that that's going to be the area of childhood obesity."

Mrs. Obama said that establishing a vegetable garden on the South Lawn this past year proved to be a surprisingly potent way to start a "non-threatening" conversation about eating right and fighting obesity. It's key, she said, to talk about the issue "in a way that doesn't make already overstressed, anxious parents feel even more guilty."

While the conversation with the first lady ranged over a variety of issues, Mrs. Obama declined to share her thoughts on Republican Sarah Palin, saying she didn't know her well enough. And she said no decision had been made about whether she'll be involved in campaigning for candidates in the 2010 midterm elections.

Mrs. Obama said she began last year with overriding worries about her daughters, Sasha and Malia, focusing on how the girls and her own mother would adjust to the move to Washington. In March, when the girls declared they felt at home in Washington, "that was the first time that I really was able to breathe a sigh of relief," Mrs. Obama said. Asked about her major accomplishments for the year, the first lady started with this: "My kids are sane. I recognize them as the kids that they were before we got here."

Mrs. Obama said 2009 was also about "figuring out the job" of first lady. She said it's been surprising to have every move, word and wardrobe choice subjected to celebrity levels of scrutiny.

"How you stay grounded is to not focus on it," Mrs. Obama said, adding that she checks in with friends from her past to make sure it's not all going to her head.

Asked about how the state dinner had been handled, the first lady said the White House and Secret Service were taking steps to make sure such a breach never happens again. Pressed specifically about how the event had been handled by her longtime friend, Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, the first lady added: "When I say the White House, I mean everyone in the White House."

On another matter, Mrs. Obama said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid had no need to apologize to her for his remarks about President Barack Obama's race and dialect.

"I know Harry Reid," she said, "and I measure people more so on what they do rather than the things that they say."

Reid apologized last weekend after a new book revealed that during the 2008 presidential campaign, he had described Obama as a light-skinned African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."