For the past month alone, here’s Michelle Obama’s itinerary:
Travel to North Carolina to rally military families. Stand next to Hillary Clinton to encourage women to get politically active. Show up at a home-building site on the National Mall. Visit a D.C. school to talk up good grades. Cap it off by shoveling dirt for a “kitchen garden” at the White House.
Oh, and in between, the Council of Fashion Designers of America announced that it would honor her with a special tribute for her contribution to the fashion industry.
Traditional? Hardly. In fact, Obama’s approach so far is decidedly different from the usual model of the modern first lady — pick a platform of two or three issues and stick to it, by and large, for four years.
She’s become the spokeswoman for all sorts of issues and topics — from fitness, parenting, the environment and women’s rights, to redefining images of black women in American culture and promoting self-esteem for young girls.
Yet in the midst of all those themes, it isn’t yet clear whether her self-described core messages — about military families, volunteerism, and helping working women balance work and family life – are truly breaking through. Some wonder if she’s spreading herself too thin to emerge in the public mind as a leading voice on those topics.
Of course, it’s early. Her husband’s administration is but two months old, and right now, the nation’s first black First Family is still new and different. She’s more noted for, say, being on the cover of Oprah’s magazine or People, than for any advocacy she might do to help working parents spend more time with their kids.
Aides say she’s flattered and still surprised by the intense interest in her — and sees it as a way to advance part of her unofficial agenda. She did the VOGUE cover, for instance, because it gave her daughters and other young girls a chance to see an accomplished African-American woman on the cover of a mainstream magazine, a rarity.
So rather than worry about diluting her message, they believe she is building a powerful public platform to make her voice heard.
“I think when she thinks about work-life balance, it’s really broader than simply work and family in the general sense,” said Jocelyn Frye, her policy director. “It’s really thinking about how we make sure our families are healthy, how do we make sure that people eat right and take care of themselves and educate themselves about making good choices.”
Yet, for some, Obama’s multi-tasking approach to the job raises the specter of Rosalynn Carter, who was dogged early on by questions of whether she was taking on too much and trying to be all things to all people. Ironically, some are raising the same “too much, too fast?” question about Michelle that they’re raising about her husband, the president.
“I think it’s fragmented. She stands for so many things right now, she’s doing so many things. She’s in the kitchen at the White House, she’s building houses, she’s digging in the garden. It’s all very nice, but I thought to myself, ‘Why is she planting herbs?’” said Mindy Sabella, director of marketing at Siegel+Gale, which specializes in strategic branding.
Some of it is Michelle Obama’s choosing, with an active schedule that reflects her many interests (though this past week was quiet, with her daughters on spring break from Sidwell). Some of it has come to her just by being first lady – the public attention to her fashions, magazine cover stories whether she sat for an interview or not – in a way that contributes to the sense she is everywhere, all the time.
“You can’t be in the White House without being an expert juggler. It’s like drinking out of a fire hydrant. There are so many requests for your time. There are so many issues and causes that someone could spend 10 lifetimes on,” said Noelia Rodriguez, Laura Bush’s press secretary.
But she also cautioned, “It is important to stay focused on the two or three things where she can make a difference, rather than start to expand the portfolio where her impact won’t be as wide or deep.”
Obama’s early moves have shown the topics where her interests run the deepest. During her visit to a struggling high school in a poor D.C. neighborhood she talked about being teased as a young girl by people who said she talked “like a white girl,” but ignoring the taunt and striving for excellence anyhow.
“I really wanted to write it off as another school visit but I heard the snippets and it was like listening to a woman’s leadership conference. She genuinely wanted to put lift under every chair in that room, and to leave each of them with a picture of possibility that they may or may not have had when they came into that session,” said Sue Hodgkinson, who heads The Personal Brand Company. “She is clear that she has the ability in every exchange to leave that signature behind her, and I was in fact taken by that. She was not just showing up.”
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, said that in her more unofficial position as a role model, Obama is faced with both a gift and a burden, unlike first ladies in the past.
“Often in many ways just by living her life the way she lives she sends a message out to people, and when you lead a public life you have to be careful about how you appear. That can be an incredible burden and it can give you tremendous power,” she said.
As for her more official three-issue platform, branding expert Hodgkinson said that for Obama, “the broader mission is to install herself in the psyche of the country and then after that take a look at what does she then wants to advance and can reasonably advance. “
Military family issues might not be the right fit, she said.
“When you think about military families it’s not a connection you first make with the first lady,” she said. “Without that natural pull, it’s going to be a harder campaign especially if people’s ears are turned elsewhere.”
Early polling showed that most preferred that Michelle Obama take on education, work-life family balance, or health care.
But she clearly is breaking through and connecting on some level—polls show her favorability ratings in the mid-60s.
“She is not trying to be a symbol of the first lady. She is trying to connect with the vast number of Americans who would like to have a person similar to them and their ideal. It’s more of an indirect approach,” said Howard Rubenstein of Rubenstein Communications, Inc. “She is more like an ambassador of friendliness and good will, and it is working very well. I would want to hire her as a PR person because she hasn’t lost touch. She doesn’t believe that as first lady, she has to be meeting with kings and queens.”
Of course, the first lady does some of that too. Next stop, Europe, where Michelle Obama will have tea with Queen Elizabeth II.