- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

As the nation’s new first lady, Michelle Obama enters a historic public role that offers no official job description but comes with a massive set of expectations.

She must juggle the traditional, as the wife of the president, but also shine a spotlight on causes that matter to her, managing a complex and public dance as supportive presidential wife and highly visible issues leader for women around the world.

Even as she packs significant skills as a corporate executive, Mrs. Obama, in her new job as presidential spouse, will be expected to host more than a few teas.

She also is likely to set new ground as the post-feminist face of modernity, juggling parenting, with two young children in the White House, along with her new duties as high-powered political partner.

Thus far, she seems to be able manage all of her roles in a grounded and realistic way, says Robert Watson, a presidential scholar and professor at Lynn University in Florida.

Mr. Watson lauds her image as in tune with professional women of today and says how the nation views its first lady is rich in history but evolving in the post-millennial age.

“In many ways, Michelle Obama is sort of the epitome of the challenge of modern womanhood in that she has managed to successfully balance a career, family and a marriage. She is sort of the woman who did it all,” he observes.

As a vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where Mrs. Obama worked before taking leave during her husband’s campaign, “she’s been at the height of corporate executive power and has likely made more money in most of her career than her husband,” he adds.

“And yet she also has raised two remarkably well-adjusted children along with keeping a marriage together with a very charismatic type of politician. How many of those stay together? I think she gets an ‘A’ on all accounts, and I think she’ll be a good role model for women.”

Born on Chicago’s South Side to father Fraser, who worked in the city water department, and mother Marian, who was a homemaker, Mrs. Obama lived with her parents and brother Craig in a small apartment that lacked luxury but by all accounts had love and discipline.

Her parents also had high expectations, and both Michelle, who turned 45 Saturday, and Craig attended college at Ivy League schools.

After she graduated with a law degree from Harvard University, Mrs. Obama practiced law at the prestigious firm Sidley Austin, where she met her future husband, Barack Obama, when he interned at her firm.

She spurned his romantic advances for a time but finally acquiesced to join him for a date to a Spike Lee film. They married in 1992. Soon, his career as a neighborhood activist turned political with a stint in the Illinois Legislature and then a successful run for U.S. Senate.

Now, with her husband’s historic election as president, Mrs. Obama finds herself in the national spotlight as self-described “mom in chief” and budding fashion role model, dubbed by Vanity Fair magazine as the nation’s new “commander-in-sheath.”

Already the comparisons with another iconic first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, are being made. The statuesque Mrs. Obama has turned the heads of the world’s style posse for her practical yet chic professional wardrobe, embracing American designers but also mall-style ready-to-wear - that she bought online.

Her inherent knowledge of what works for her and the confidence she brings to her look have earned her high praise in fashion circles around the world, making this first lady a newly anointed urban-style icon who is influencing magazines and consumers.

Her power: She wears the clothes, they don’t wear her.

“The beauty of Michelle Obama is her simplicity. Rather than being about frill, she is about strength and dignity,” says Palm Beach fashion expert Kathie Orrico, who has outfitted celebrities, politicos and members of high society. “She is about the grace and beauty inherent to the best of American women. She reminds me of Jackie Kennedy … who you found to be so much more than what she was wearing.”

Real women are paying attention to Mrs. Obama - and her style - because what she is projecting in spirit and dress is “classic and attainable,” Miss Orrico says.

“Michelle is saying it’s the clothes that matter, and they matter for how they flatter who I am. That may be the most revolutionary concept in fashion in a long time,” she said.

Mrs. Obama’s athletic silhouette and much-admired toned arms already have appeared on several magazine covers. Her frequent embrace of Maria Pinto’s fashion collection has given the Chicago designer a heightened profile.

During the campaign, a Web site devoted to charting Mrs. Obama’s daily fashion arc emerged, www.mrs-o.org.

“If you look at how the magazines are responding, it’s a trend the pacemakers are embracing, the recognition and inevitability, whether it’s Vogue or [Harper’s] Bazaar that picks this up, America will,” Miss Orrico said. “They can’t afford to look out of touch with what the nation is responding to, and I think the nation will respond to this style she is setting.”

Even as she breathes new life into American couture, Mrs. Obama’s priorities in Washington will likely be her children and making sure they acclimate not only to a new town, but also a guarded yet public way of life.

“I don’t see her coming in initially as someone with a first-lady agenda other than her children,” says Michelle Bernard, a lawyer who serves as president of the Independent Women’s Forum. “It’s family first. That is her first focus and her most important focus, and I think the Obamas will walk the talk.”

Already, Mrs. Obama is showing her commitment to her daughters’ education, traveling by motorcade with Malia and Sasha as they began their first day at Washington’s Sidwell Friends School.

Her mother, Marian Robinson, will move into the White House with the first family to look after the Obama daughters while their parents are busy with official duties.

After Mrs. Obama’s family has settled in, “it will be very interesting to see what the causes are that will be important to her,” Mrs. Bernard says. “Will it be health care? Will she take on issues in education? We really don’t know.”

Mrs. Obama has noted her interest in helping families, including those in the military. At her job at the University of Chicago, she worked on improving health care access and treatment for poor families.

She wrote in October, before the election, of her possible role as first lady: “I would work daily on the issues closest to my heart: helping working women and families, particularly military families. But as my girls reminded me in Denver, even as first lady, my No. 1 job would still be Mom. At 7 and 10, our daughters are young. If we move to Washington, my first priority will be to ensure they stay grounded and healthy, with normal childhoods - including homework, chores, dance, and soccer.”

She added: “Our girls are the center of Barack’s and my world.”

Mr. Watson says whatever issues Mrs. Obama chooses to take on, she comes to the table with a background that says she understands real American needs.

Growing up poor, but from a bonded family, rising to graduate from Princeton and Harvard and then supporting her husband’s political ambitions, she benefits from living a real and decidedly middle-class life, he said, a shining testament to the power of making your own possibilities.

“Both Nancy Reagan and Rosalynn Carter were quoted as saying that nothing can prepare you for the White House,” Mr. Watson said of the high expectations of a first lady.

“All of the eyes of the world are upon you. Thus far, she’s made very few mistakes. She was very articulate in a competitive primary and also during the general election.”

He thinks Mrs. Obama will be a “unique” first lady who will make her mark with “lots of involvement” in whatever she chooses to highlight, balancing the social and the political with much the same grace that she has brought to her own life thus far.

“She comes to this job well-prepared.”

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