Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What to expect from the next first lady

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News, Washington

When Barack Obama spoke to the crowds at Chicago's Grant Park after he had learnt he was to become America's next president, he talked of the debt he owed his wife.

Michelle Obama
Mrs Obama was deeply involved in her husband's campaign

"I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last 16 years, the rock of our family, the love of my life, the nation's next first lady... Michelle Obama," he said.

As the leading lady in the future president's life, Michelle Obama has been praised and criticised in equal measure - about everything from her involvement in her husband's campaign to her fashion sense.

The interest and buzz around her will only become more intense once she enters the White House.


Michelle Obama is an accomplished woman in her own right.

A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, she has worked as an associate dean at the University of Chicago and was most recently vice-president of community affairs for the University's Medical Centre.

She met Barack Obama when the pair worked at the same law firm in Chicago.

He asked her out several times before she agreed to a date.

In an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres's chat show, he spoke about their first romantic encounter:

"Finally, after a firm picnic, I offered to buy her ice-cream... and we went to Baskin Robbins and we sat out on the kerb and ate ice cream cones and then I kissed her and that's when I sealed the deal."

I think there's a greater interest in Michelle Obama because she's coming with two young children
Carl Sferazza Anthony

The pair have two daughters - seven-year-old Sasha and Malia, 10.

Mrs Obama has said that her first priority as first lady will be to serve as "mom-in-chief" and to make sure her daughters are settled into life in Washington DC.

It will be the first time, for many years, that a first lady has brought up young children in the White House.

To many, the combination of the professional and parental will make her a new kind of presidential spouse.

Historian Carl Sferazza Anthony has written several books about first ladies.

"I think there's a greater interest in Michelle Obama because she's coming with two young children and it's a situation we haven't seen in quite some time," he said.

"Amy Carter was nine and matured in the White House... but really it's not since Jacqueline Kennedy almost 50 years ago that we've seen a professional woman who's articulate and willing to discuss social issues who also has the traditional responsibilities to two young children."

Shaping policy

As well as playing the role of mother and hostess, it is traditional for first ladies to take up causes they believe in: Laura Bush promoted literacy; for Hillary Clinton it was healthcare.

Michelle Obama has often talked about her desire to do more to help military families.

In an interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric earlier in the year, she was asked about what interests she might pursue if she were to become first lady.

"There are a lot of things that I care about. I mean, I ran a national service programme, so I care very deeply about national service. I am a mother and a professional and a wife. And I know the struggles of trying to balance work, life, family," she said.

The degree to which a first lady gets involved in shaping policy can vary.

Barack and Michelle Obama with their two daughters on election night
The dress Mrs Obama wore on election night drew several comments

Aides to Mrs Obama say she has no interest in being a "co-president", but Mr Sferrazza Anthony believes she will play an important supporting role for her husband:

"Her strengths and experience as an executive will come to bear in her influence on the thinking of the president, his decision-making process," he said.

"And I think in terms of her public projects, seeking to help families who are struggling to achieve a sense of balance."

Judging by her involvement in the presidential campaign, it is unlikely that Mrs Obama will take a backseat during her husband's time in office.

She was nicknamed The Closer by the Obama campaign team for her ability to pull in votes.

When interviewed by comedian Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, she confessed to being her husband's harshest critic, joking that she would say to him: "If I don't believe you, I'm not voting for you, buddy!"

Style icon

Barack Obama has spoken about how much he values such input from Michelle and how she is often the decision-maker in the household.

As a first lady in waiting, Mrs Obama has already been described as a style icon, with a celebrity status of her own.

The red and black dress she wore on election night was the source of much debate, with many critics saying it was the wrong choice of outfit.

She has appeared on daytime televisions shows in the US and has graced the cover of glossy magazines.

Galina Espinoza is a senior editor on US entertainment magazine People.

"Our readers are incredibly interested in Michelle Obama because they do see her as a new celebrity," she said.

"She is just a regular mom in a lot of ways but she is also right now one of the biggest celebrities on the planet as the new first lady. She's glamorous, she's beautiful she's got a handsome husband, gorgeous kids and she's now one of the most powerful women in the world. It's an unbeatable combination."

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