Thursday, May. 21, 2009 | Nancy Gibbs and Michael Scherer
It was just two days after the Inauguration when an e-mail went around to Michelle Obama's staff, instructing everyone to be in the East Room of the White House at 3 that afternoon. The First Lady's advisers arrived to find the room filled with ushers and plumbers, electricians and maids and kitchen crew gathered in a huge circle, and Michelle in a T shirt and ponytail, very casual and very much in charge.
"This is my team that came with me from Chicago," Michelle said, pointing to her communications staff and policy people. "This is my team who works here already," she went on, indicating the ring of veterans around the room. Many of the household staff had served for decades; some had postponed retirement because they wanted to serve an African-American President. And so the two groups formed concentric rings and spent the next hour or so making sure that everyone had a chance to meet everyone else. I want you to know that you won't be judged based on whether they know your name, Michelle had warned her advisers. You'll be judged based on whether you know theirs.
The White House became as much Michelle Obama's stage as her husband's even before she colored the fountains green for St. Patrick's Day, or mixed the Truman china with the World's Fair glasses at a state dinner, or installed beehives on the South Lawn, or turned the East Room into a jazz lounge for a night or sacrificed her first sock to the First Puppy. Of all the revelations of her first 100 days, the most striking was that she made it seem natural. She did not spend decades dreaming of this destination, and maybe that's the secret. "I'm not supposed to be here," she says again and again. And ever since she arrived, she has been asking, "What are the things that we can do differently here, the things that have never been done, the people who've never seen or experienced this White House?"
Three generations, two adorable girls and a dog — no First Family has lived with the weight of hope and hype that has landed on the Obamas. Clothes they wear fly off the shelves. Dog breeders from Germany to Australia couldn't keep up with the demand for Portuguese water dogs after Bo debuted. Michelle is the first First Lady to make Maxim's hottest-women-in-the-world list. (She's No. 93; it probably wouldn't be proper for a First Lady to come in any higher.) Cameras with lenses that can count her pores from three states away are trained on her around the clock. Former East Wing veterans marvel at the lovesick coverage she gets: when Oscar de la Renta questions her fashion sense — "You don't ... go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater" — the response is, essentially, Well, what does he know? This is what a paradigm shift looks like.
The question now is what she plans to do with all this attention. We ask the usual questions of any new First Lady: What is she really like? How does she see her role? But it is only of Michelle Obama that we ask, What does she mean? Few First Ladies have embedded themselves so quickly in the world's imagination. And none have traveled so far, not just from Chicago's South Side to the East Wing, but from the caricatured Angry Black Woman of last spring to her exalted status as a New American Icon, as if her arrival will magically reverse eight years of anti-American spitballing, elevate the black middle class, promote family values, give voice to the voiceless and inspire us all to live healthier, more generous lives.
She admits that the sheer symbolic power of the role is perhaps greater than she anticipated. "I tried not to come into this with too many expectations one way or the other," she says on a sunny May afternoon in her East Wing office. "I felt like part of my job — and I still feel like that — is to be open to where this needs to go." She's always shown a shrewd eye for the strategic detour, suspending her career in favor of helping her husband get elected, then getting her daughters settled and her garden planted and, in the process, disarming the critics who cast her as a black radical in a designer dress. She will say she's just doing what comes naturally. But whether by accident or design, or a little of both, she has arrived at a place where her very power is magnified by her apparent lack of interest in it. "Over the years, the role of First Lady has been perceived as largely symbolic," Hillary Clinton observed in her memoirs. "She is expected to represent an ideal — and largely mythical — concept of American womanhood." That was not Clinton's favorite part of the job. Maybe this is Michelle's true advantage: she appears at peace, even relieved, that her power is symbolic rather than institutional. It makes her less threatening, and more potent at the same time — especially since her presence at the White House has unique significance. (See pictures of when Michelle met Hillary.)
The great-great-granddaughter of slaves now occupies a house built by them, one of the most professionally accomplished First Ladies ever cheerfully chooses to call herself Mom in Chief, and the South Side girl whose motivation often came from defying people who tried to stop her now gets to write her own set of rules.
Getting to Know You
Just a year ago, more people had a poor opinion of Michelle Obama (35%) than a good one (30%). During the primaries especially, she was too hot, and not in the way Maxim means it. She talked about America as being "just downright mean," and lazy, and cynical, how life for most people had "gotten progressively worse throughout my lifetime." Seeing an opportunity, conservative critics dubbed her Mrs. Grievance, called her bitter and anti-American, to the point that her husband had to defend her patriotism and call the attacks on her "detestable."
Her portrayal may have been a caricature, but it was also taking a toll. People who traveled with her from the earliest days in Iowa say she was a quick study, receptive to feedback on what was working and what wasn't. She began talking less about the country's problems and more about its promise. By the time the New Yorker parodied the parody of her as a machine-gun-toting revolutionary, she was reintroducing herself at the Democratic Convention as a wife, a mother, a sister and a daughter, listing why she loved her country and why her husband was the man to lead it.
And so the debate about What She Means shifted again, but this time it was feminists wondering if she or her handlers were using the J. Crew twin sets and Donna Reed hair to reassure white voters that "she's just like you." Under the liberal magnifying glass, Michelle was suddenly a victim, forced by her husband's ambitions and society's expectations to tone it down, soften it up, step back. "How will Michelle Obama feel as she becomes what she has long resisted — an extension of her husband?" asked Rebecca Traister in a Salon article called "The Momification of Michelle Obama." She was giving up her job, her $212,000-a-year salary and her independence, which prompted the commentariat to lament the sacrifices she was having to make in terms of her identity. Even her own mother told People that "Michelle had worked so hard to get where she was. I kind of feel bad for her."
Asked about this analysis now, Michelle rejects the idea that she has had to sacrifice at all. "I know women who have given up a lot of themselves," she says. "And there were times in my marriage where I put stuff aside. This isn't one of those times." And she didn't change, she insists; people just had time to get to know her. On the other hand, she brought to the White House a longtime friend and marketing executive who, as social secretary, describes her job as managing "the Obama brand." In any case, by the time she held the Bible for her husband on Inauguration Day, her approval rating had jumped nearly 40 points. And she was just getting started.
After four months in the White House and two years on the campaign trail, she's learned how to help people relax around her so she can get down to business. She makes fun of herself and of her husband, and teases a male reporter about his struggle to accurately describe her outfit during her European tour. "You didn't know you'd be covering cardigans," she says, but that's O.K., since her husband doesn't know cable-knit from argyle either. When she tries to explain why she's constantly hugging people, she reaches out and grabs your arm and holds it. I'd be intimidated too to meet the First Lady, she says. "That's why I'm so touchy with kids, because I think if I touch them and I hug them, that they'll see that it's real, and then they'll relax and breathe and actually kind of enjoy the time and make use of it."
Put her in a room with black teenage girls and her message couldn't be more radical or more all-American: Anyone can be anything if they are willing to work hard enough at it. This is inspiration with an edge. The honors student who wrote her Princeton thesis about being black in the Ivy League knows that the difference between success and failure can be cruelly random. She knew lots of bright kids growing up, she says, "and you slowly see people slipping through the cracks, you know that there but for the grace of God." She had friends who could have thrived in college, but their parents didn't believe in going into debt to pay for it. "I saw kids like me who were using their loan money to help their parents pay the electric bill, and therefore they'd run out of money for books and couldn't feed themselves over the course of the semester ... So I just keep thinking about those kids who are missing opportunities by a hair, by a breath, by a parent, by a teacher, by a dollar amount, and I'm kind of working to make up some of that difference to the extent that I think I can."
One of her fantasies during the campaign was that in her White House, famous people wouldn't just come in; they would go out into the community too. So on a cool day in March, she dispatched a regiment of role models to schools across Washington, including singers Alicia Keys and Sheryl Crow, Ann Dunwoody, the first female four-star general, and Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel into space. Michelle visited Anacostia High School, where violence is common and signs on the walls tell students which baby supplies will be available through the Baby Bonus Bucks Redemption Program. She sat with a group of 10 girls and three boys, who had been chosen, she told them, because "somebody in your school thought that you had a lot of potential." She recalled how she had lived close to the University of Chicago but never set foot inside growing up. "It was a fancy college, and it didn't have anything to do with me." Maybe you feel the same way about the White House, she suggested. "There are so many kids like that," she observes, "who are living inches away from power and prestige and fame and fortune, and they don't even know that it exists."
Which is why that night, the women leaders reassembled at the White House for a dinner with more than 100 students from schools across the city to celebrate Women's History Month. Tonight is your night, Michelle told the girls. So don't be shy. "Poke and prod and figure out how [these women] got to be where they are and what you can do in your lives to get yourselves ready for that next step. Tonight we just want to say, Go for it! Don't hesitate. Don't act with fear. Just go for it." Because all the women in the room, she told the girls, see a little bit of ourselves in you.
"It's one of those events," she says looking back, "that stand out in my mind as, This is why I'm here."
White House Life
After Barack Obama was elected to the Senate, people asked Michelle if she'd be moving to Washington. "I was like, no," she says. "All my support is the support you build up over the years. It is my mom, girlfriends — you move away from everything." But when he won the White House, Michelle effectively moved her support system with her, not just her mother but old friends who are scattered throughout both the East and West wings. Other longtime Chicago friends are occasional visitors and joined the Obamas for spring break, as they have for the past several years — but this year the gathering took place at Camp David. Among the traditions is a talent show, with everyone required to perform. This year Michelle demonstrated her skills with two hula hoops; Obama and the men sang "You Are the Sunshine of My Life." The visits typically include charades, singing, board games — although now that the Obamas are making use of the White House bowling alley and pool table, the other families tease them by saying they'll refuse to play any games that the Obamas can practice in the new house.
As strange as White House life can be, it is providing Michelle a kind of balance she has seldom known. From roughly the time their first child was born, her husband was commuting to the state capital, the nation's capital or the campaign trail. Michelle all but charged him with abandonment, as he described in The Audacity of Hope: " 'You only think about yourself,' she would tell me. 'I never thought I'd have to raise a family alone.' " (See pictures of the White House kitchen.)
Winning the presidency was the ticket to at least one kind of normality. "Among the many wonderful things about being President," Barack tells TIME, "the best is that I get to live above the office and see Michelle and the kids every day. I see them in the morning. We have dinner every night. It is the thing that sustains me." The President refers to what he calls "Michelle time," when he takes a break during the day and retreats to the residence. Semiregularly, Michelle appears in the West Wing with the dog or their daughters for a brief but lively interruption. The family does "roses and thorns" around the dinner table, with all of them saying something good and something bad that happened to them that day. "And if the kids really, really need to see him, they can," she says. "They're free to walk in. They're welcome wherever they want to go around here." But they can also just ignore him, since they know he's around. "That's been terrific," she says. "It's more normal than we've had for a very long time."
Michelle's day starts at dawn, when she walks the dog and then hits the treadmill; she's had the same personal trainer for about 10 years, who has relocated to Washington from Chicago. There are no regularly scheduled meetings with her staff and never any meetings before the girls go to school. She tells aides which days she wants to be "on"; she can concentrate all her public events into a couple of days a week, leaving her free to sit in a lawn chair at the soccer field watching the girls play. Then there are the parent-teacher conferences, the play, the birthday party, the calls with parents to discuss the sleepover. "Kids force you into a normalcy," she says, "that, you know, it even trumps this [place] in some ways."
The Obamas' marriage has a history of tension around chores: as his career took him away for long stretches, Barack admitted, "my failure to clean up the kitchen suddenly became less endearing." Michelle smiles about this and says, "That's off the table." Now they live in a house with 35 bathrooms and in which all domestic tasks are taken care of. "She thinks it's nice that people play 'Hail to the Chief,' " the President says. "But I still am expected for family dinner on time, and I still have to walk the dog." He gets the night shift, Michelle says. "That's usually right before bed. It's like 10 p.m. We sort of handle Bo like we did the kids. I'm the early-morning person ... Once I go to bed, I don't care what happens. Just make sure the dog doesn't have an accident." She talks about the dog with the smitten tone of a girl who never had one of her own before. She walks him frequently, sometimes every couple of hours. "He's getting to the point where he can be naughty," she says, "like you walk in the room and it's like, 'Where'd you get that sock?' " The family has learned to limit Bo's range of potential destruction by keeping doors closed. "We try to set him up for success," she says with a knowing smile. (See pictures of Bo and other presidential dogs.)
Maybe this is what women watching her covet: not the clothes or the glamour or the glory, but the fact that she seems to be having a blast, in a way Laura Bush and the rest never did. After working hard for 20 years, she gets to take a sabbatical, spend as much time as she wants with her kids, do as many high-impact public events as she chooses and, when it's all over, have the rest of her life to write the next chapter. "I don't even know what that is yet," she says, but she'll have choices then, as she has now, that most working mothers only dream of.
Division of Labor
Ask anyone in the East Wing how Michelle sees the role of First Lady and you hear a lot about "supporting the President's agenda." But what happens if she disagrees with her husband about some policy he's embraced? "I'm sure I do what every spouse does," she says, as though their potential disagreements are in any way like any other couple's. "We'll have conversations, and we'll share our opinions over the course of the conversation. But I don't want to have a say. Really, there are a lot of times when I'm like, Don't tell me what happened today at work. I just don't want to hear it, because I want the home space to really be free of that." Unlike in the Clinton White House, when a member of the First Lady's staff was in nearly every important meeting, Michelle does not send an emissary to key policy debates or the 7:30 a.m. meeting in chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's office. But no one who heard her on the campaign trail can imagine for a minute that she doesn't have strong views on many issues, or that her husband doesn't know what they are.
She has dropped some of the traditional baggage that First Ladies have hauled around for eons, passing up this gala or that benefit for the first time since Bess Truman's day and planting her famous garden to teach a lesson about healthy eating. Like all First Ladies, Michelle will at some point do or say something that gets her in trouble, and it won't just be wearing $540 sneakers to work in the food bank, the way she did last month.
But in her Technicolor dresses and famously buff bare arms, it's hard not to wonder if Michelle isn't daring us all to just roll with it, to be a little bolder at a time when the country could use all the courage it can muster. "You've got to make choices that make sense for you," she says, "because there's always going to be somebody who'll think you should do something differently." When prodded, she admits with a wry smile that there are moments when she misses her old, anonymous knock-around days. "It's a lot easier to live your life," she says, "when everything you do doesn't have a consequence."
But that path, at least for a while, is blocked. Just before our interview, she'd been out on the South Lawn walking Bo when she took a wrong turn. "We happen to walk past the gate where the visitors were coming, and I heard this 'Yeaaaa! It's Bo!' ... Bo is like, 'Who's calling me?' " She's laughing now at the spectacle of a dog who is world-famous, at a house trafficked by thousands of strangers every day, at a life in which every stroll can become a headline. "I was like, Oh, darn, I should have gone around the other way."
— With reporting by Jay Newton-Small and Karen Tumulty / Washington