Second term offers new role for first lady

Michelle Obama is expected to spend her second term in the White House as a champion of the same issues she advocated for in her first, but with an added twist — the first lady could become the most prominent female figure in her husband’s administration.


With Hillary Clinton leaving the State Department — and no high-profile woman replacing her or other departing Cabinet members — Michelle Obama, known for her commitment to health and her chic fashion style, is entrenched as the most famous woman in the administration. Her rise comes at a time when President Obama is under fire for a lack of diversity in his Cabinet.

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“It’s premature to assume that somehow we’re going backwards. We’re not going backwards, we’re going forward,” the president said when asked during a Monday news conference about diversity among his staff.

In some ways, President Obama’s wife is his best asset.

The first lady had a sky-high approval rating — 73 percent — in a CNN/ORC International poll released at the end of the year. She beat both Clinton — at 66 percent — and the president, at 52 percent.

But Michelle Obama, who turns 49 on Thursday, has maintained that approval rating by playing it safe: working on noncontroversial issues such as childhood obesity, benefits for military families and mentoring for young girls.

She gave a well-received speech at the Democratic National Convention that focused on Obama’s family life in the White House.

“I don’t see her getting more political,” one former staffer for the first lady told The Hill.

Case in point: Obama has not spoken out on some of the controversial issues the administration is dealing with — such as gun control and gay marriage. And she hasn’t caused a major controversy for the White House.

“In four years, Michelle Obama hasn’t had one misstep,” said Carl Anthony, a historian who specializes in first ladies.

That seems even less likely to occur in the president’s second term.

Several former White House staffers told The Hill that Michelle Obama is likely to stay the course, advocating for the same issues that worked so well for her in the first term. They include her Let’s Move! anti-obesity campaign and her work with military families through Joining Forces.

“She is very strategic and she likes to see measurable outcomes,” said another former staffer who worked with the first lady.

“The work in both Let’s Move! and Joining Forces is not done, and it would not be like her to abandon those projects. She would put a high priority in making sure those two initiatives make a difference.”

The first lady’s office has already indicated it will increase its work with veterans. On Tuesday, it praised Wal-Mart for its new veteran hiring proposal and noted that the White House would meet with Wal-Mart and other companies in the weeks ahead to expand that initiative.

There’s also a strong possibility Obama could expand her work by going global.

Presidents seek to make their mark on a global scale in their second terms, Anthony said, “and what the first ladies have done often parallels that.”

Laura Bush traveled abroad extensively during her husband’s second term, going to Saudi Arabia to work on women’s health issues and to Burma to speak on women’s rights.

“What typically does happen in a second term … is that you look outside the United States and where you might have an impact globally,” said Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff for Bush.

“But it’s important … that [Michelle Obama] and her staff — especially her staff — do their due diligence on ‘What are the administration’s priorities globally, and where would it make sense for her to be engaged or deployed?'”

Obama has already made her mark overseas, with two successful trips to London and a journey to South Africa with her daughters, Malia and Sasha.

It was her visit to a London’s girls’ school in April 2009 where she felt like she found her feet as first lady, according to Jodi Kantor’s book The Obamas: A Mission, a Marriage.

“She looked at the girls looking at her and saw herself through their eyes, noticing how they hung on her every word,” Kantor wrote. “She saw the responsibility, the impact, the potential, of her role.”

A former staffer for the first lady agreed, suggesting a similar trip would be of interest to Obama.

“She’ll try to replicate conversations like that; she’ll try to replicate events like that … they are just so impactful and perfect and true to her,” the former staffer said.

The first lady’s staff hasn’t said explicitly what Obama’s agenda will be for the second term. They are likely meeting on that issue now and no announcements would be expected until after next week’s inauguration.

Obama herself has said she’ll stay with her signature issues.

“I will continue to work on the issues of childhood obesity, because the goals we set were generational and we’re not done yet,” she told People magazine in December. “The same thing is true with military spouses and families, because we’re now going to see those challenges up close and personal as these wars are drawn down. So I’m very happy we have another four years.”

And, of course, there could be an unexpected event that could cause the first lady to alter course.

“You never know when a crisis is going to come up — I mean a very serious crisis, and you are going to need a symbol, whether that is a symbol of the United States in a global context or whether it’s sort of a domestic one in a maternal symbol,” Anthony said. “These crises do arise, sadly, and a first lady … can convey such a strong impression, even if it’s a photo-op.”

But there are two paths her predecessors have taken that Obama is unlikely to follow: testifying on Capitol Hill and running for public office.

There was speculation in 2010 that Obama might appear on Capitol Hill to testify in favor of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, for which she was a strong advocate.

Other first ladies have appeared on Capitol Hill to advocate for favored causes, as Laura Bush did on education issues and Hillary Clinton did on healthcare.

Alas, there was no appearance by Obama. The legislation eventually passed and was signed into law.

Several former staffers for the first lady told The Hill they doubted she would trek to the Capitol in her husband’s second term.

A post-White House political career seems just as farfetched.

“She’ll be the first to say she’s not running for anything; she’s not the political person,” one former staffer said.

In some ways, the clock is ticking for the first lady.

“There’s also a sense of urgency,” McBride said. “You know how fast the first four years went, and the second four years are going to go by just as fast. And in about a year’s time people are going to start focusing on who the next person is that is going to run for president.”

In the end, what Michelle Obama does next is up to Michelle Obama.

Actress Jenna Elfman, who plays the first lady on NBC’s “1600 Penn,” said she read several books about first ladies and tried to find a “common denominator” among them to bring to her role — without success.

“There is no rulebook or standard for being a first lady of the United States,” she told reporters at the National Press Club last week. “It really is up to them to create that position and how they want it to be.”