- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2008

NEW YORK — Sure, there’s plenty of pressure on President-elect Barack Obama. But imagine being his wife.

The moving trucks haven’t even arrived, and already Michelle Obama is being touted as the next Jackie Kennedy, the woman who will infuse Washington with a sense of style and vigor not seen since the days of Camelot.

Never mind that Mrs. Obama has repeatedly indicated she’ll focus first and foremost on getting her daughters settled. Expectations on all fronts are running high.

Will she be a fashion trendsetter? A first lady who redefines and revitalizes the capital’s social scene? A globe-trotting emissary for her spouse? Going beyond Mrs. Kennedy, will she influence policy on family issues? Will she be an exemplary mom, hostess, ambassador, advocate and politician, combining it all without ruffling feathers or breaking a sweat?

Well, maybe. But first ladies have long been victims of conflicting expectations and comparisons to those who went before them. So, as she assumes one of the least defined but most scrutinized jobs in Washington, Mrs. Obama might do well to follow the example of Rosalynn Carter:

“I was going to be criticized no matter what I did,” Mrs. Carter once said, “so I might as well be criticized for something I wanted to do.”

One reason speculation is running rampant about Mrs. Obama’s plans and goals is that she has said little about them, and her close friends, some of whom spoke openly to the media before the election, have spoken little since.

She did give a brief glimpse of her thinking in an interview this week with “60 Minutes.”

“The primary focus for the first year will be making sure that the kids make it through the transition,” she said, sitting alongside her husband. “But there are many issues that I care deeply about.” She cited two that got her attention during the campaign: military families and the work-family balance.

There’s been speculation that Mrs. Obama will be far more involved in policy than she has let on so far. However, those who have been close to other first ladies say they well understand why she would want to focus on her daughters first.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” said Paul Costello, former press aide to Mrs. Carter, whose daughter, Amy, was just 9 when she arrived at the White House. “These kids are now instant international celebrities. You have to protect them from that.”

Still, Mr. Costello said, even between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., there are astounding opportunities.

“The first lady has enormous authority and power in this country to shed light on things she cares about,” he said. “She’s a megastar. She’ll be able to choose and transform issues that she finds important.”

Of course, that can lead to criticism, as it did for Mrs. Carter, who famously became the first presidential spouse to sit in on Cabinet meetings. She figured it was the most efficient way of preparing herself to represent the administration.

“It was as if she’d dropped a bomb on the South Lawn,” Mr. Costello said. “It was so odd, because the first lady is an ambassador for the president - she’s his eyes, ears and nose.”

Historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony said the public misperceived what Mrs. Carter, who also maintained a weekly working lunch with her husband, was trying to do.

“She was just avoiding having to bother him later with questions,” said Mr. Anthony, of the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio. “She was on the perimeter of the room along with policy aides, secretaries and assistants.”

If Mrs Carter was criticized for being too politically active, Nancy Reagan, her successor, was criticized for being too socially active (and spending money on new china). They can at least take heart that criticism of first ladies goes back to the beginning of the republic.

Abigail Adams, the nation’s second presidential spouse, derisively was called “Mrs. President” by an anti-Federalist, Albert Gallatin, for her partisan support of her Federalist husband, John.

Dolley Madison, on the other hand, was admiringly called “Presidentress” by some for her role as a national symbol for all Americans, one who knew “how to strike the delicate balance between queen and commoner,” Mr. Anthony said. Elizabeth Monroe, who came next and was much less popular, suffered from the comparison.

The wealthy Julia Tyler was deemed overly regal or queenlike, but then her successor, Sarah Polk, was called “monstrously small” (meaning small-minded) by President Tyler himself, Mr. Anthony said.

Even Eleanor Roosevelt, known for traveling the world and speaking out on issues from poverty to civil rights to women’s rights, was not immune from criticism. Jackie Kennedy, revered for her style and flair, was seen initially as too young and once was called “too darned snappy” in the press. Her hair even was described as “a mop.”

By the time Hillary Rodham Clinton came onto the scene, she was hardly the first to assume a strong political role. However, Mrs. Clinton, who had been a successful lawyer and children’s advocate, went further, establishing an office in the West Wing and accepting an assignment from her husband to overhaul the nation’s health care system. When that failed, it harmed the standing of both spouses.

Laura Bush took a much quieter approach and thus is widely seen as a more traditional first lady. However, over the years, she has traveled overseas on her own, delivered some of her husband’s Saturday radio addresses and championed causes such as women’s rights in Afghanistan and support for pro-democracy activists in Burma.

Though Mrs. Obama, with degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law, may arrive at the White House with a resume more like Mrs. Clinton’s, evidence suggests she may take a page from Laura Bush, approaching the political aspects of the job more gingerly. It might be a wise move not only for her image, but for her sanity.

First, said Mr. Costello, the former aide to Mrs. Carter, “the requirements are beyond belief, from visiting schools to launching Navy boats to traveling overseas.” That will be even more true in two years, when midterm elections take place and Mrs. Obama, as first lady, will be expected to campaign vigorously for her party.

On a purely social level, “there are innumerable events: receptions, lunches, a dozen or so Christmas parties. There will probably be state dinners to plan. There are big expectations that this couple will bring Washington alive again. They’ll be expected to use the White House as a showcase for important social and cultural aspects of America.”

As if that - and the new first lady’s own agenda - weren’t enough, Mrs. Obama is expected, just like Jackie Kennedy, to look great while doing it all. And to set trends, too.

“I think readers have already shown what they want from Michelle Obama - they want her to bring style back to the White House,” said Lesley Jane Seymour, editor of More, a magazine for women older than 40. Its cover photo and interview with Mrs. Obama made the October issue one of the year’s best sellers.

“This is a different world,” Miss Seymour said. “People say Barack Obama is ‘post-race,’ and you could say Michelle Obama is ‘post-first-lady.’ She’s great looking and accomplished and not afraid to dress like it.” Miss Seymour particularly liked the close-fitting bright red dress Mrs. Obama wore to meet the Bushes at the White House.

“She was saying, ‘Here I am,’” Miss Seymour said. “I think she’s gonna be gangbusters as first lady.”

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