Unprecedented role for celebrity first lady

Michelle Obama is playing a starring role in her husband’s second term at a level that is unprecedented for first ladies.

Obama’s Sunday night surprise appearance at the Oscars — where she announced “Argo” had taken the night’s top award — was merely the crescendo on a media blitz that also included her “mom dancing” with Jimmy Fallon in a video that quickly went viral. 

“She’s been an awfully high-profile first lady in recent days,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University who specializes in first ladies.

ADVERTISEMENT
Obama took a much more low-key approach in the early days of her husband’s first term, when she made targeted appearances, such as joining the president for a signing ceremony on legislation meant to ensure equal pay for women.

“If we compare the opening days of the first term to the opening days in the weeks of the second term, she is much more in the spotlight,” said Jellison. “In fact, I, speaking as a historian, would be hard-pressed to think of any first lady who has been so prominent in the media in so short a period of a time.”

A more visible Obama is a win-win situation for the White House, which is downplaying talk that she has become more engaged. 

The first lady plugs a noncontroversial agenda that complements the president’s, who gets to benefit from her personal popularity. About two-thirds of the country approve of her work as first lady, according to a CNN poll from December.

Tina Tchen, Obama’s chief of staff, said on Monday that the first lady might seem more visible because the president’s reelection campaign was only a few months ago, but that her recent appearances and efforts reflect no change from the first term. 

“I guess I would say that the level of activity over the course of the last term to now has been pretty consistent,” Tchen told reporters on a conference call.

The first lady wasn’t crazy about the idea of her husband running for president initially, but now seems more comfortable in the spotlight. 

“She seems to be enjoying her celebrity status more than she ever has before. She’s much more comfortable with it,” Jellison noted.

A fashionista since arriving at the White House, Obama is sporting a new second-term look — her much-talked about bangs. 

She’s ramped up her online presence, using her Twitter account to send a variety of personal messages.

In the dance segment with Fallon, she showed off her version of the “Dougie,” highlighting a pop culture coolness fast becoming a trademark. 

At the Oscars, she fit right in while appearing from the White House via satellite, upstaging a number of Hollywood actresses in her sparkly, silver Naeem Khan gown.

“I’m so honored to introduce the nominees for Best Picture,” Obama said from the diplomatic room at the White House, where she appeared with members of the armed services behind her. 

Kristina Schake, communications director to the first lady, said that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences asked Obama to appear.

“The Academy Awards approached the First Lady about being a part of the ceremony. As a movie lover, she was honored to present the award and celebrate the artists who inspire us all — especially our young people — with their passion, skill and imagination,” she said in a statement on Sunday night.

Several reports in the Hollywood trades said Harvey Weinstein, the producer behind “Silver Linings Playbook” and a prominent fundraiser for the president, arranged her appearance.

Obama hasn’t publicly declared an agenda for the second term, but former staffers have told The Hill they expect her to stick with what she does best: her Let’s Move and Joining Forces initiatives — two things she can continue long after her time in the White House is done.

The Let’s Move initiative encourages children to exercise and eat nutritious meals, while the Joining Forces project helps veterans and the spouses of active-duty military personnel finds jobs.  

The first lady has said repeatedly she wants to work on issues that she can take with her when she exits Washington in 2017. She’ll be 52 then, one of the youngest former first ladies in history.

On “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” Obama was asked if she’d consider a two-woman ticket with Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“You know, I have my eye actually on another job,” Obama joked. “And I hear that when Jay Leno retires that ‘The Tonight Show’ position is going to open, and I’m thinking about putting my hat in the ring.”

The first lady has downplayed any talk of a post-White House political career, and former staffers have said they don’t expect her to run for office.


Obama will stay on her high-profile course this week with more TV and public appearances: she’ll be on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday morning, talking with host Robin Roberts.

The first lady also will appear on “The Dr. Oz Show” on Thursday. And she’s scheduled to travel to Mississippi, Missouri and her home town of Chicago on a two-day tour starting Wednesday for the third anniversary of Let’s Move.

— Daniel Strauss contributed.