White House Rebel

By Romano, Lois | Newsweek, June 20, 2011 | Go to article overview

White House Rebel


Romano, Lois, Newsweek


Byline: Lois Romano

Michelle Obama refuses to be a political show pony or schmooze with Washington's elite. She has her own sense of where her energies should be deployed and has constructed a fruitful life inside the bubble. All that will have to change in the heat of Election 2012.

The most recognizable woman in the world routinely ducks reporters to have what she calls a "normal" life. Hiding beneath a baseball cap, the first lady of the United States has picked through sale racks in the frenetic Tysons Corner, Va., mall with girlfriends, bought supplies for her dog at Petco using her own credit card, and dined at some of D.C.'s hippest eateries largely unrecognized. So secretive are her outings that when Washington Capitals hockey superstar Alex Ovechkin tweeted a photo in April with his arm around her at a busy Washington restaurant, media organizations were convinced it was a fake.

Michelle Obama laid down her markers quickly and in a way that has set Washington back on its heels. The White House was not going to imprison her, the media were not going to own her, and she would not be driven by external expectations.

She was supposed to be a different kind of first lady--an Ivy League-educated, fashion-trendsetting professional who blew up the conventions of the job. No one could have imagined back in the heady days following the election that she'd declare that she would work only two or three days a week, choose a couple of politically comfortable issues, and stay out of the glare of the political spotlight. The result has been a low-key tenure that some have found to be disappointingly conventional.

But is it? What the chattering class has missed is that Michelle Obama, in an understated way, has in fact been transforming the job--but on her own terms. She may have disappointed the Georgetown salon set with a casual disregard for social convention and annoyed the old political-wives club by not indulging them. But she has also spent untold hours with the other Washington--consciously extending the reach of the White House into D.C.'s black community, mentoring students, and choking up when she reflects on her own success to offer hope and dreams. Later this month she will make an official trip to South Africa and Botswana to further expand her commitment to students and young leaders, education, and wellness.

In short, Michelle Obama has figured out ways to navigate the bubble while channeling her own passions and holding on to her life.

But her carefully crafted world at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is about to be challenged anew. Her husband is entering his reelection bid battling rough economic headwinds, against a GOP energized by the successes of the 2010 mid-terms. Barack Obama will need every ounce of his wife's considerable star power--she's polling 20 points ahead of her husband--to win reelection. Although the full-throttle campaign is still months away, Michelle is already traveling the country fundraising.

She must once again find her footing in the part of the job she hates the most--campaigning--but one she happens to excel at. "She has always been remarkably effective because no matter where you live or where you come from, you can relate to her," says White House official Stephanie Cutter, who worked closely with Michelle in 2008. "She conveys the same set of values and experiences families all over the country live by."

So reluctant has Michelle been to raise her profile that it's been easy to forget what a ferocious asset she was in the 2008 campaign. Toward the end, thousands of people were pushing into her rallies, shoving babies at her for photos, and mimicking her J.Crew clothes.

Coming off that huge success, Michelle startled the political establishment when she announced that she would limit her public appearances so she could tend to her family. (Her staff concedes that her initial declaration of working three days a week has been impossible to maintain. …

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