- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Michelle Obama said it: Washington is her home now, and she wants to get to know it.

She is making rounds, meeting federal workers at Cabinet departments, reading to children, chatting with teens, touring a neighborhood health center, dropping in at Howard University and enjoying family night at the Kennedy Center. She even has been splashed across the cover of the March issue of Vogue, with a headline that proclaims her “The First Lady the World’s Been Waiting For.”

That was just the first two weeks of February.

The first lady who seemed to suggest she would take her time settling in to her new role is off to a fast start — “like a cannonball,” in the words of Letitia Baldrige, who served as social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy.

“We were taught that you have to get to know the community that you’re in, and you have to be a part of that community; you have to get to know it in order to, you know, actively engage in it,” Mrs. Obama told a teenager at Mary’s Center, a community health center in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, who asked why she was visiting.

“And D.C. is our community now. It’s our home,” the first lady said.

Her trips outside the gated White House compound serve several purposes, including giving her a chance to learn about the complexities of a city she decided against relocating to after Barack Obama became a senator in 2005.

Now his presidency has brought her, and their 10- and 7-year-old daughters, Sasha and Malia, here. Mrs. Obama’s mother has migrated, too, to provide crucial backup in taking care of the girls.

“Our first job as new members of this community is to listen and to learn and to be thankful and grateful for what people have already done,” Mrs. Obama said at Howard, where excited students jockeyed for a glimpse of the first lady.

The president is “real busy right now,” she said at Mary’s Center. “So I figured, well, I’ve got a little time on my hands, and, you know, while the kids are at school, I want to come out and hear about the programs. I want to meet the students.”

Mrs. Obama is acting as an ambassador to the public, another set of eyes and ears for the president.

She set out on a listening tour of the federal bureaucracy on Feb. 2, promising to go from agency to agency “to learn, to listen, to take information back where possible” and to meet “our new co-workers and our new neighbors.”

She has met scores of government workers, many of whom waited in line for hours at the Departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Interior for the chance to see her and hear what she had to say.

On those pep-rally-like visits, where she thanks federal workers for their service, she boosts the spirits of a group that sometimes felt neglected by the previous administration. She doubles as President Obama’s salesman and has been explaining how money from his $787 billion economic recovery package will affect their work.

At the Department of Education, she said the department will be “at the forefront” of much of what the administration wants to do, including renovating and modernizing schools, increasing Pell Grants and providing tuition tax credits.

She talked to HUD workers about reducing home foreclosures, calling homeownership one of the “building blocks for strong neighborhoods, for strong schools and strong families.” She said the stimulus bill will put people back to work by improving a program that helps communities buy foreclosed or abandoned properties for rehabilitation or resale.

Her eight minutes of remarks at the Department of Interior echoed the president, including calls to stem climate change and use natural resources responsibly. “Sound energy and environmental policies are going to help create thousands of jobs,” she said.

Stacy A. Cordery, who studies first ladies, said Mrs. Obama is warming up to her role.

“She’s doing uncontroversial things. She’s not going out on a limb. She’s not making her own statements. She’s not using her own voice,” said Miss Cordery, who teaches history at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Ill. “She’s still channeling her husband’s voice, and that’s a traditionally accepted role for women in our society.”

Miss Baldrige, who was social secretary to Mrs. Kennedy, noted Mrs. Obama’s active schedule during the presidential campaign and said she expected the same from her as first lady.

“I thought she would go off like a cannonball, and she has,” Miss Baldrige said.

Miss Baldrige and Miss Cordery said moving Mrs. Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, to the White House with the family may be making it easier for Mrs. Obama to get out and about. Miss Baldrige called it a “genius idea.”

Mrs. Robinson often cared for her granddaughters after school when the Obamas lived in Chicago. She retired from her bank job to spend more time with them after Mrs. Obama’s campaign schedule intensified.

Mrs. Obama’s coming out began nine days after the Jan. 20 inauguration, when she held a reception in the State Dining Room for Lilly Ledbetter shortly after Mr. Obama signed a wage discrimination bill named for the Alabama retiree.

She started visiting Cabinet departments the following week and joined her husband to read to children at a local charter school on what so far has been the worst day of his young administration. On Feb. 3, two of Mr. Obama’s nominees for top administration posts withdrew from consideration because of tax problems.

Mrs. Obama did more reading with children at the community health center and held a round-table discussion with participants in a teen program there. When the conversation hit a lull, she prodded the youngsters for more questions and gestured at the reporters and news cameras lining the back of the room.

“What would you tell the president? I might talk to him tonight to pass on a few things,” she said.

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