Skip to main content

She will not devote herself to redecorating the Lincoln Bedroom, nor will she have an office in the West Wing.

Her time won't be spent pushing a health-care plan through Congress, but it will not be frittered away in the corridors of power.

America's new first lady, Michelle Obama, has learned from predecessors including Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, as well as from her own time on the campaign trail, and will create a role for herself that is as unique as the family she joins in the White House.

Story continues below advertisement

The 44-year-old lawyer with degrees from Harvard and Princeton, a mother of two, a descendant of slaves, raised on Chicago's South Side, is as unlikely an occupant of the presidential residence as her husband, and just as likely to change how her new job is perceived.

"She represents what I think is going to be a new phenomenon for our nation, which is the first lady as future public servant," said Catherine Allgor, an expert on the history of first ladies at California's Claremont McKenna College. "She's only limited by her imagination."

But Ms. Obama herself has been too savvy to characterize her role as epoch-changing.

"My first job, in all honesty, is going to continue to be 'mom-in-chief,' " she has said repeatedly, referring to her daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7.

Since her husband began his campaign for the presidency two years ago, Ms. Obama has learned how to deflect questions about her own ambitions, wary of the perception problems surrounding a first lady who tries to inject herself into the political process.

Her education has been swift and, at times, harsh.

Some early reviews suggested she was emasculating her husband - a charge she laughs off, saying it's impossible to emasculate someone who has run for the country's highest office.

Story continues below advertisement

She was painted as a bit cold and a bit radical, a reputation she has effectively rid herself of during the campaign.

But Ms. Obama is smart enough to know that she will still walk a delicate line in Washington, where she will now move with her daughters for the first time, despite the fact that her husband has worked in the capital since 2004.

"I think Michelle Obama knows that while many of us are thrilled to have her, other people are going to subject her to a much harsher scrutiny than if she were a blond former beauty queen," Prof. Allgor said. "I think Michelle Obama will be stepping carefully, understanding that the public persona is very important."

A former community organizer like her husband, and more recently a highly paid executive of a Chicago hospital system, Ms. Obama undoubtedly has issues she would like to pursue with her newfound power, but has been reticent to describe what they are.

"There are a ton of things. It's endless what you can do in the White House," she said when asked about her likely priorities by Newsweek. "But until I get there and know what kind of resources I'll have and how much time and what's the agenda of the country, I think, truthfully, I don't know which of these many things I can focus on."

Her advisers have suggested Ms. Obama will continue to address the issues she raised on the campaign trail, those that affect working women and military families, as well as the topic of public service.

Story continues below advertisement

Her chief of staff is expected to be Valerie Jarrett, the woman who once interviewed her for a job in the office of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, but who came to work for Ms. Obama during the campaign.

With her team, Ms. Obama will also likely dedicate herself to education, determined to lower the barriers to higher education faced by low-income students.

But her first and main priority will be her own daughters, and ensuring they have a relatively normal upbringing under extraordinary circumstances.

Even faced with the rigorous demands of the campaign, Ms. Obama rarely spent more than a single night away from her girls, who will be the youngest children to live in the White House since nine-year-old Amy Carter in 1977.

"What will the girls need?" she has wondered in interviews. "Are they going to transition easily to the White House and this public life and a new school and a new city?"

The girls currently attend the University of Chicago's Lab School, a private school ofwhich Ms. Obama is a member of the board.

Where they will attend school in Washington is likely to be a matter of great public interest.

Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education advocacy group, said the family will face a tough choice among public, private and charter schools in a city where attempts at education reform have become symbolic of the issue nationwide.

He is putting his money on Sidwell Friends, the elite, progressive private school attended by Chelsea Clinton in the 1990s.

But in early September, school board chancellor Michelle Rhee told local members of the media that she would encourage the Obamas to send their daughters to a public school such as the Oyster Bilingual School, attended by her own daughters.

"Politically, I think there will be some pressure for them to do so," Mr. Petrilli said.

The Obamas may also choose a charter school such as the KIPP DC Key Academy or DC Prep, hybrids of private and public that are popular in Washington.

"That would be very powerful if they sent their kids to a charter school," Mr. Petrilli said.

"But most of those schools are catering to low-income families, so it would be a very different environment from what the girls are experiencing now."

But Prof. Allgor believes many of the issues tackled by the Obamas in Washington will be approached through the lens of their own family.

Ms. Obama, in particular, has developed a politically astute way of talking about her role as one primarily focused on caring for children, hers and those of others.

But despite her natural ambition, talent and charm, Ms. Obama's transition to the most public life in the land will still be difficult.

"Michelle Obama hasn't been a political wife for very long, she's been running around trying to have a career and wondering what's for dinner and dealing with soccer games," Prof. Allgor said.

"And now she's going to become royalty."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to