Michelle Obama: Woman of Influence

Accomplished lawyer balances public life with family responsibilities

When Michelle Obama becomes first lady of the United States o­n January 20, she will join her husband in a partnership widely expected to transform the public face America presents to the world. In the process, she will assume a new role that offers exciting opportunities and challenges.

Although the position of first lady is unelected and unpaid, a president’s spouse has many official duties, some practical and some ceremonial or symbolic. As first lady, Michelle Obama will represent her country when traveling overseas, and she will preside as hostess at White House state dinners and other important functions. In addition, she likely will continue meeting with citizens across the United States, much as she did during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Modern U.S. first ladies often devote part of their time to a public-service agenda of their own choosing. Michelle Obama already has indicated she is particularly interested in the welfare of military families, and her efforts o­n their behalf almost certainly will ensure that those families’ needs receive high-level attention.

On a more personal level, the next first lady has told reporters she intends to fulfill her obligations as “mom-in-chief” to the Obamas’ two young daughters, Malia and Sasha, as the girls adjust to their new home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Her balancing act should be familiar to working mothers everywhere as she strives to meets the demands of a fast-paced job while carving out time with her husband and children.


Michelle Obama brings impressive credentials to her new role. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, she is an accomplished lawyer and former hospital administrator whose professional skills will be an asset in the day-to-day management of life in the White House.

Obama, who turns 45 o­n January 17, will be the youngest U.S. first lady since 31-year-old Jacqueline Kennedy moved into the White House in 1961. Just as President John F. Kennedy and his elegant wife were regarded as heralds of a glamorous new era (dubbed “Camelot” by the press), Barack and Michelle Obama — a youthful, dynamic couple often perceived as natural successors to the Kennedys — are “ushering in a new era in America,” the Chicago Tribune newspaper said.

During her tenure at the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy established herself as a style icon, favoring a streamlined look that signaled a departure from the attire of her predecessor, Mamie Eisenhower. By selecting American designer Oleg Cassini as her personal couturier, Kennedy also boosted the fortunes of the U.S. fashion industry. Today’s fashion retailers hope the stylish, sophisticated Michelle Obama will have a similar impact, helping to spur sales in a tough economic climate.

Even though the economic recession might seem to dictate a subdued approach to the inaugural festivities, the historic nature of the Obamas’ debut as the first African-American president and first lady of the United States virtually guarantees an intensely joyful celebration.

In the days leading up to the inauguration, there is rampant speculation about what the new first lady will wear to the inaugural balls. As Washington Post fashion reporter Robin Givhan wrote in a recent column, “The inaugural gown … is part of the photographic tableau that is meant to instill pride, joy and optimism,” and — like it or not — the first lady’s dress “is what captures the popular imagination.”


An essay in the January 2009 edition of Vogue, written by the magazine’s editors, summarized the public’s fascination with the soon-to-be first lady: “We can’t wait to see how she will entertain, decorate, raise her children, pursue her passions.”

For many of her fellow citizens, Michelle Obama’s life story resonates powerfully. In a December 1 Newsweek column titled “What Michelle Means to Us,” reporter Allison Samuels wrote: “Michelle’s influence could go far beyond the superficial. When her husband raises his hand to take the oath of office, Michelle will become the world’s most visible African-American woman.”

As first lady, she “will have the chance to knock down” stereotypes about black women “and educate the world about American black culture more generally,” Samuels wrote. “But perhaps more important — even apart from what her husband can do — Michelle has the power to change the way African-Americans see ourselves, our lives and our possibilities.”

Her own achievements, like her spouse’s, illustrate the American narrative of social mobility. Michelle Obama, who grew up in modest circumstances o­n the south side of Chicago, will soon be calling the White House her home.

Liza Mundy, author of Michelle: A Biography, predicts that Mrs. Obama will flourish in her new position. Speaking in Arlington, Virginia, o­n January 12, Mundy said the incoming first lady is “as well prepared as anyone I can think of to adapt to yet another extraordinary challenge.”


(US government)