WASHINGTON – Michelle Obama’s predecessors have carved out enough different roles as first lady that she is now free to fashion the job in a way that suits her. The first lady will take her time defining her new role, but already she’s dropping clues.
Sit in on Cabinet meetings like Rosalynn Carter? No thanks. Mrs. Obama says she doesn’t like “the process stuff.”
Pick a pet issue? She’s identified a few favorites, including supporting military families with a parent far from home.
Her priority? She always will be “mom-in-chief” first.
Protective of her daughters, Mrs. Obama made it clear she was not amused when the makers of Beanie Babies released “Sweet Sasha” and “Marvelous Malia” dolls just after the inauguration.
People who’ve built careers studying first ladies say it will take time for Mrs. Obama to settle into hew new role.
Will she try to push the traditional first lady boundaries and have better luck with it than Hillary Rodham Clinton? Will she stick to tradition, avoid controversy and dive right into decorating, meal planning and welcoming guests to the White House? Will she try to do it all?
“I would be surprised if first ladies came into office in the first week and said, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’” said Stacy A. Cordery, who teaches history at Monmouth College in Illinois. “For the most part, first ladies’ platforms evolve. They have to get their footing.”
Based on what Mrs. Obama has said, her role is unlikely to evolve fully until she’s assured that her 10- and 7-year-old daughters are comfortably settled in at the White House after moving from Chicago, the only other place the girls have ever called home.
There are other hints about what lies ahead for the first lady:
_She’ll continue as one of President Barack Obama‘s closest advisers. After all, their relationship began that way some 20 years ago when she was a corporate lawyer in Chicago and was assigned to be his mentor after the firm hired him as a summer intern.
_Her daughters come first. She’ll try to keep their lives as normal as possible, even seeing to it that they make their beds and do other chores. Mrs. Obama largely has stayed out of the public eye since the inaugural, helping the girls make themselves at home. But she did hold a reception Thursday in the State Dining Room honoring Lilly Ledbetter, an Alabama woman whose name is on an equal-pay bill the president signed into law. On Monday, she planned to visit the Education Department and speak briefly to the staff. Mrs. Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, also moved in to the White House and can fill in when duty calls the first lady away.
_Issues she’s expressed interest in include helping women juggle career and family, and promoting community and national service. At the reception for Ledbetter, Mrs. Obama said she’d heard from working women all over the country during the campaign about the need for fair pay, especially “at a time when so many families are facing economic insecurity and instability.” She also did her best to put her White House guests at ease, telling them: “Feel free, walk around, touch some stuff, just don’t break anything.”
_She could be eyeing her predecessor as a role model. Mrs. Obama has talked about how gracious she found Laura Bush to be and said, “I’m taking some cues.” Accompanying her husband to the White House on Inauguration Day for coffee with the outgoing president and first lady, Mrs. Obama arrived with gift box in hand. Inside was a leather-bound journal and engraved pen for Laura Bush to use to begin writing her memoir.
Americans expect a certain kind of first lady, one who supports the president, doesn’t steal too much of his spotlight, stays out of trouble, advocates for favored causes and does all the other things that come with running a home, such as raising children, being a hostess, planning parties and decorating.
But each first lady puts her own stamp on the position, as Mrs. Obama is sure to do.
She’s called her new life “a bit surreal” but also says she’s excited “because I think there’s a lot that can be done with this platform.”
Hillary Clinton was the first real career woman to become first lady; she was a practicing lawyer, children’s rights advocate and first lady of Arkansas when her husband, Bill, was elected. She offended the public during the campaign by saying she wasn’t about to give up her career to “bake cookies and serve tea.”
The Clintons pushed the boundaries in other ways.
Bill Clinton joked during the campaign that the country would get two for one if it elected him, speaking about the first lady’s long-assumed role as an informal presidential adviser in a way that made the public uncomfortable.
Instead of following tradition and settling in the East Wing, Hillary Clinton raised eyebrows by taking a West Wing office among her husband’s top aides. Laura Bush moved the office back to the East Wing, and Mrs. Obama is there, too.
Bill Clinton put his wife in charge of trying to overhaul the health care system, but the effort failed and damaged their public images in the process. Hillary Clinton also was fingered as being involved in various administration scandals. She is the only first lady to testify before a federal grand jury, and once was burned in effigy.
“People expect the first ladies to be more traditional than they expect the women in their own lives to be,” said Kristie Miller, an independent historian who has written books about the Coolidge and Wilson first ladies.
If Mrs. Obama, a lawyer who is as accomplished and Ivy League-educated as Hillary Clinton, at some point decided to take her new role beyond what’s expected of first ladies, she could have an easier time of it because of what Clinton endured.
“Mrs. Clinton opened that door for other first ladies to walk through,” Cordery said. “She pushed the American comfort level with what first ladies could do.”
Even Laura Bush, widely viewed as a traditional first lady, broadened the role.
She was the first first lady to record one of the president’s Saturday radio messages. She held a news conference in the White House briefing room, rare for a first lady, to accuse Myanmar’s military rulers of ineptness after a killer cyclone struck. The plight of pro-democracy activists in Myanmar, also known as Burma, became one of her causes and she consulted often with the U.N. secretary-general. She also championed the rights of Afghan women.
Mrs. Obama will have to be careful about overstepping because some people still have negative impressions of her, Cordery said. Some still regard her as unpatriotic and angry because of her comment during Obama’s campaign about being proud of the U.S. for the first time in her adult life.
Cordery said Mrs. Obama is smart enough to have paid close attention to Hillary Clinton’s trials and to have reached out for advice on the do’s and don’ts of being first lady. Playing off of the recent news that Obama won his fight to keep his beloved BlackBerry, Cordery quipped: “Maybe the first lady’s private BlackBerry will have Mrs. Clinton on it and they will talk.”