- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

As Michelle Obama settles into her new home at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., she is stepping into a spotlight without equal in American life - and must do so with a newly assembled team to help her find her footing on the job.

Unlike her five immediate predecessors, Mrs. Obama enters this undefined, unbounded role without a longtime team of handlers, speechwriters and aides.

Mrs. Obama is the first since Betty Ford to assume the role of first lady without having been either the first lady of a state or a vice president’s wife. Laura Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan and Rosalynn Carter already had a team assembled for the transition to the national stage.

Jackie Norris, Mrs. Obama’s new chief of staff, told The Washington Times that the new first lady will focus her influence on helping military families and working women balance career and child care, but her agenda is still a work in progress.

“We are still brainstorming. In the spirit of Mrs. Obama, there’s a lot of team-building we have to do,” she says, adding that while Mrs. Obama is likely to attend public events in the Washington area in the coming weeks, she will not travel abroad anytime soon.

So far, Mrs. Obama has about 20 staff members, a professionally and racially diverse group of old campaign hands and old friends, including Ms. Norris, two deputy chiefs of staff, two policy aides, two schedulers, two personal aides and five social office staffers.

Ms. Norris says she expects the East Wing staff to grow as “budget restraints permit.”

“She sees herself as having two roles,” Ms. Norris says. “First, as a common-sense mom who is celebrating the historic nature of the White House and thanking the staff who has been here for a long time. Second, she brings her role as a professional working woman who has led groups like Public Allies in Chicago,” referring to an AmeriCorps program that prepares youths for public service.

Myra G. Gutin, a first-lady historian and author of “Barbara Bush: Presidential Matriarch,” says the president’s wife’s staff is reflective of changing mores about female roles in society.

“The first lady’s staff is a 20th-century invention,” she notes. “I believe Edith Roosevelt, Theodore’s second wife, was the first to have a secretary. Eleanor Roosevelt only had a personal secretary, and she probably paid her out of her own money. As first ladies have taken on more responsibilities and have had more sophisticated roles, their staffs have grown.”

Mrs. Obama has filled her staff with Chicago confidantes and with Iowa politicos such as Ms. Norris, an early member of the Obama team.

A veteran of Iowa politics who served as then-gubernatorial candidate Tom Vilsack’s finance director in 1998 and Vice President Al Gore’s political director in Iowa in 2000, Ms. Norris helped lead the Obama campaign to historic victories in the key state, which held both the first-in-the-nation caucuses and was again a swing state in the general election, changing from backing Republican George W. Bush in 2004 to Barack Obama, a Democrat.

Franny Starkey Sanguin, the new director of scheduling and advance, and Tyler Lechtenberg, director of correspondence, also were Iowa operatives.

Mrs. Obama is including minority members such as special assistant Kristen Jarvis and social secretary Desiree Rogers, both of whom are black.

Ms. Rogers, along with Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, has been a close friend of Mrs. Obama’s for more than 20 years.

Mrs. Obama’s inclusion of other black women on the White House staff is a welcome change for black advocates.

“The fact that so many black women will be holding some of the most high-level and critical positions in the White House and among the senior policy staff is a huge shift in power for black women in Washington, D.C., who are usually relegated to lower-level positions at traditional agencies such as HUD, Labor, Education and [Health and Human Services],” says Sophia A. Nelson, president of iask Inc., a national professional women’s organization dedicated to the health, wellness and professional advancement of minority women.

Former first lady Laura Bush’s team has offered insight to Mrs. Obama’s team.

“Mrs. Bush had about 25 people working for her. Our office and [Mrs. Obama’s] people met for about three hours and talked about what to do,” said Sally McDonough, communications director to Mrs. Bush.

“The first lady has a podium, and Mrs. Obama will learn how to use that podium,” she said.

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