Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Michelle Obama's First 100 Days

She is something new in the White House. Take it from someone who has met and known First Ladies over five decades, from Mamie Eisenhower on.

Michelle Obama is the first product of a women's movement sensibility, if not its ethos. Like her husband, she is not rooted in how things were before the 1960s, and her amazing popularity reflects that change.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, she has not pushed openly into policy but, unlike Laura Bush, she has not stayed in the shadows as the traditional supportive but invisible wife.

"First Lady in Control of Building Her Image" headlines the New York Times, noting, "The image that Mrs. Obama is projecting, however, fails to fully reflect the multifaceted first lady. A Harvard-trained lawyer and former hospital vice president, she is also a tough-minded professional who cares deeply about influencing public policy and sometimes promotes legislation at her events. Her top aides, for example, are often immersed in policy discussions in the West Wing that are not publicized by the White House."

What this misses is that Michelle Obama is the first woman secure enough to present herself as a full-time wife and mother, as a partner who has temporarily put aside her professional self, at first to help her husband campaign and now govern the country.

The public is responding to this authenticity underlying her promotion of gardening, child-rearing and other domestic concerns, sensing how far she has gone beyond First Ladies who traditionally exercised power through pillow talk.

Unlike the Clintons who touted a two-for-one presidency, the Obamas are offering a couple working together under a 21st century definition of gender equality, taking different roles in apparent comfort with them and each other.

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