Mom in Chief?

She has her priorities, but motherhood will never be her only mission

Michelle Obama drives feminists nuts by insisting that her main concern when she arrives at the White House will be Malia and Sasha. Michelle’s repeated pledge that she will devote herself full-time to making sure her daughters adjust to their new lives has sparked the phrase “the mommification of Michelle”—and that’s no compliment.

Despite the criticism, Michelle is expected to establish her office in the East Wing, the traditional venue for First Ladies, as opposed to the West Wing, where the president and the power reside (and where Hillary Clinton installed her office).

Still, friends maintain that Michelle will also tackle issues, drawing on both her background and her campaign experience. One goal is to promote national ser-vice, a reflection of her work in the mid-1990s at Public Allies Chicago. “She’s going to try to focus on how to get kids from diverse backgrounds involved in community service at a young age,” says her friend Cindy Moelis.

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A second mission is to find ways for the country to better support military families. During the campaign, Michelle often held women’s roundtables and frequently ended up in talks with military spouses. She expressed shock at the flimsy or nonexistent backup for these women, who are left on their own to worry about their husbands’ safety while facing issues of childcare, education, and family budget.

Beyond those issues—and especially if there is a second term—friends and colleagues speculate that Michelle could address health care (drawing on her work at the University of Chicago) and education (former Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan, a family friend, sees her as “a huge force in education” and calls Michelle and Barack “living symbols of what education can do in your life”). 

In addition to taking on specific issues, Michelle will bring her own style to the more traditional roles of the First Lady. She will almost certainly travel abroad to help improve America’s relations with foreign governments (taking care, though, not to step on the toes of the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton). And many Washingtonians look forward to her bringing glamour to the town’s social scene—a return to the Kennedys’ Camelot, or, as the New York Post dubbed it, “Bam-a-lot.”

Closer to home is Michelle’s role as Barack’s number-one adviser, as he describes her. The Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree says that Michelle will tell her husband “not what he likes to hear but what he needs to hear.”

Overall, says the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who has known Michelle since she was a teenager, she will help the president sell his agenda. “She will not have some trivial role,” he says. “Michelle is capable of having a press conference without notes.”

 

Photograph: AP photo/Charlie Neibergall