This week marked a new step in Michelle Obama’s evolution as first lady. In her hometown of Chicago, she delivered one of the most emotional speeches of her career — about kids dying from gun violence.
“I’m not talking about something that’s happening in a war zone halfway around the world,” she said. “I am talking about what’s happening in the city that we call home.”
Mrs. Obama almost never ventures into the top political controversy of the day. Instead, she has spent her time in the White House focusing mostly on child nutrition and military families. But the first lady’s role may be changing in President Obama’s second term.
Two months ago, Michelle Obama went to Chicago for the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton. Pendleton was an innocent 15-year-old girl killed by a stray bullet a week after she performed at inaugural festivities. At the funeral, the first lady turned to her friend and adviser, Valerie Jarrett.
“She leaned over and she said, ‘I have to come back to Chicago. We have to do more. I don’t want to just attend a funeral. I want to make a difference,’ ” Jarrett says.
That shows a level of confidence and assertiveness Obama hasn’t always had as first lady. People who know her best say she’s more comfortable in the role than ever before. She now understands the levers of power.
“Appreciating what a first lady can do to make a big impact is something that evolves over time,” Jarrett says.
There’s no job description for first lady. No statutory authority. And Jarrett says during the first term, Michelle Obama’s top concern was her daughters’ transition to a new life.
“The girls are four years older. They’re much more independent now, they have schedules of their own, they’re thriving, and so she has a little bit more flexibility with her time,” Jarrett says.
Aides to the first lady say Obama doesn’t plan on launching big new initiatives in the second term. Instead, she’ll expand her two signature projects: Joining Forces, which is about veterans and military families, and Let’s Move, which focuses on childhood obesity.
“Mississippi saw a 13 percent decrease in childhood obesity over the last few years, which is extraordinary,” says Sam Kass, Let’s Move’s executive director. “Places in New York and Philadelphia and in L.A., we’re starting to see real declines — which is really substantial.”
In the last four years, Let’s Move cut deals with major supermarkets, restaurant chains and school lunch programs. In the next term, Kass says the program will work on information for parents and advertising for kids.
For example, Birds Eye vegetables recently teamed up with Nickelodeon’s iCarly. “And during that time that they did that partnership, they saw a 37 percent increase in sales of vegetables,” Kass says.
At the same time, some big candy and soda companies have agreed to stop targeting certain products to young kids.
Myra Gutin of Rider University, who studies the history of first ladies, says Michelle Obama’s activities look a lot like what she calls “activist” first ladies, in the mold of Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Hillary Clinton and others.
“The activist first ladies certainly are at more risk for making a mistake, and that could end up taking up some of their husband’s political capital,” Gutin says. “But at least in my research, I’ve never found that that worry has really stopped them very much.”
Obama’s stumbles have been few, says Anita McBride of American University. There was a lavish trip to Spain and party crashers at the first White House state dinner. But McBride, who was first lady Laura Bush’s chief of staff, says the White House recovered quickly.
“I think she learned from it, and you haven’t seen that happen again,” McBride says. “But overall on the development of issues, you know, I think they have done a very good job.”
As often as not, Obama lands in the spotlight for reasons of style rather than substance. A new haircut becomes a major national news story.
“It is not a normal life that a person leads,” says Ebs Burnough, deputy social secretary during the Obamas’ first term. “But when it comes, I think, particularly to style, etc., she is great about saying, ‘It comes with the territory but, you know, I’m not focusing on it.’ “
While any first lady gets constant scrutiny, Michelle Obama is special. At 49, she’s younger than most people who have held the job, the first woman of color in the role and the only first lady in an age of Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and YouTube.
Lately, she seems to be having more fun with it all, whether showing up on the Oscars or doing a “mom dance” with Jimmy Fallon.
In that appearance, Fallon asked if she would consider running for office in 2016. Obama said she’d rather host The Tonight Show.