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Michelle Obama Works to Define Agenda as First Lady

March 12, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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First lady Michelle Obama is settling into her new role as she tours federal agencies, participates in community projects and highlights issues like bolstering support for military families. Analysts discuss her role and the public reaction.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, Michelle Obama settles into her role as first lady.

Michelle Obama ventured out of Washington today for her first official solo trip since becoming first lady. She visited the Fort Bragg Army base in North Carolina, where she met with military spouses and families.

Mrs. Obama’s portfolio as first lady is still being filled out. She has famously said that she wanted to focus on being “mom-in-chief” to her two young daughters, Malia and Sasha.

As a result, Mrs. Obama has spent her first weeks at the White House trying to make it more child-friendly.

U.S. FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: Welcome to the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: She recently invited 180 local middle school students over to celebrate Black History Month. And she and her husband had a swing set installed on the South Lawn.

She has begun to introduce herself to her new Washington neighbors through charity work and school visits.

CHILD: I want to be first lady.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: First lady?

MICHELLE OBAMA: Nice!

JUDY WOODRUFF: So far, the first lady’s outreach has proven successful with the public, with one recent poll showing more than 60 percent of Americans view Michelle Obama favorably.

But with that popularity comes intense scrutiny. Mrs. Obama caused a small stir in the media when she wore a sleeveless dress to her husband’s speech to a joint session of Congress. And the first lady has invited curiosity by advocating for her husband’s policies during visits to federal agencies, at times more forcefully than many expected.

MICHELLE OBAMA: Sound energy and environmental policies are going to help create thousands of jobs through the economic recovery and reinvestment plan that Barack is out there promoting today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With one official trip now under her belt, the first lady plans on leaving Washington again in the coming weeks, including travel to Europe with her husband later this month.

First weeks in office

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the first lady, we're joined by Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book "Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn't Enough."

And Noelia Rodriguez, she served as director of communications and press secretary to First Lady Laura Bush from 2001 to 2003. She's now the forum director at the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Thank you both for being with us.

Noelia Rodriguez, I'm going to start with you. You worked inside the Bush White House, inside the caldron. How has Michelle Obama come across to you in these first weeks of the new presidency?

NOELIA RODRIGUEZ, former press secretary for First Lady Laura Bush: Well, I think she's done a terrific job of being out and about, getting to know the neighborhood, getting her daughters settled in their new schools, and going out and reaching out to the public service employees of the different agencies.

So I think she's been a great champion of public service. And I think she's been a great ambassador on behalf of her husband to reach out and connect with their community as she starts to get ready to get out beyond the beltway and get out beyond Washington, D.C.

So she's been a terrific role model, full of energy, full of confidence, and as just a great ambassador all around on behalf of the president and the administration

JUDY WOODRUFF: Melissa Harris-Lacewell, what struck you about these almost 50 first days?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL, Princeton University: Well, so far she's been flawless. And I worried a little bit about Michelle Obama's transition for a couple reasons.

I mean, one, she was coming from Chicago, which was, for her, a community that really for most of her life had been a nurturing, protecting family community. And, of course, D.C. can be a difficult place for anyone to transition into, much less a mother with children and, of course, with the enormous weight of the White House on her shoulders, but she's managed all of that sort of social part flawlessly.

I think she's also managed to really walk a very fine and careful line as the first African-American first lady, both appealing really broadly, so that you have, you know, three-quarters of Americans saying that they support and are pleased with what she's doing, but at the same time still sort of acknowledging very particular parts of her role as an African-American first lady that I think has really been just a perfect balance.

Race and Role Modeling

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, let me stay with you on that point. The fact that she is the first African-American first lady, how does that affect her role? What does it mean she can do or can't do? Does it limit her? Does it expand what she's able to do?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I suspect that Michelle Obama is mostly working very hard to be authentic to herself, to play the role that she thinks is appropriate, a role which is both this kind of "first mom" role, which she suggested very early on, but also an advocacy role for the questions that she cares about, everything from healthy eating and nutrition, which we've seen her do from the White House kitchen to the soup kitchens where she's served in D.C., but, also, of course, these questions of women and girls on this council that she's now, you know, been engaged in with the White House, and military families, which she began today.

So she's doing what she wants to do. But as an African-American woman, we can expect that both black community members, as well as white folks who are viewing Michelle Obama will not be able to help but to see her through particular lenses, stereotypes about black women. So she'll do what she wants, but it will make the interpretation of her fraught with racial questions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Noelia Rodriguez, what about that point, the fact that she's the first in that category?

NOELIA RODRIGUEZ: Well, I think that's a great point -- those are great points that Melissa is making. And the fact is that, as Americans, we all want her to succeed. She's her husband's closest partner and closest advocate. And we're in a history of -- period of change where she's a part of all of that.

And so we're looking to her to be the face, if you will, when she's out on the road on behalf of her husband and the administration and, more importantly, on behalf of her own issues, public service, military families, the healthy habits that she's been talking about, and, of course, just physically, if you look at her, she's a terrific role model for women and for all people across the country.

The fact that she is so well balanced in caring about her family, caring about the issues in a profession that are important to her, in caring about and doing something about the issues that are important to women and girls across the country.

So she's American and she's -- by bonus, we have the first African-American first lady and president in our country's history. And I think that's something that we can all celebrate and be proud of. And many people never thought they'd see the day that this would happen, and she's just been a terrific partner for President Obama, to be his advocate and our advocate on behalf of all of us across the country.

The role of First Lady

JUDY WOODRUFF: Melissa Harris-Lacewell, is there a role, a specific role that a first lady is supposed to fulfill?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I think not, but I do think that, in an era that is a post-Hillary Clinton as first lady -- so I want to separate out Hillary Clinton as first lady from Hillary Clinton the senator and now the secretary of state.

But as first lady, she really crafted a very different way of thinking about what a first lady could be. She had a very strong and clear policy role within the White House.

Now, Laura Bush had a more traditional role of advocacy, of support, of the symbolism of the first lady. Many Democratic women were hoping that Michelle Obama would revive the Hillary Clinton version of first lady.

And for the most part, she's resisted that. She's resisted taking on her own policy agenda, and she's adopted a relatively more traditional role of advocacy, symbolism. You know, she's going to talk about the economy, but she's going to do it by wearing J. Crew in Vogue magazine, right, the way that first ladies have often done that work. And so I think there's some challenge there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, I want to step in, because we've only got a couple of minutes left and come back to Noelia Rodriguez just on this question of traditional role or not. How do you see Michelle Obama as different from the role of Laura Bush, for example?

NOELIA RODRIGUEZ: Well, I think it's important to note that there is no job description for the first lady. She has traditionally -- to use that word again -- followed whatever she is passionate about. In the case of Laura Bush, it was about reading and early childhood cognitive development to make sure that kids got to school ready to read, ready to learn.

And with Michelle Obama, she's passionate about the things that she's been working on her whole professional life, work-life balance and, of course, now her children and supporting the administration in any way that she can.

But because there is no job description, I think that makes the role even more special. She's got this magnificent thing called the bully pulpit, where she can get on message and amplify both the message of the West Wing and her own message on behalf of the presidency and, more importantly, on behalf of all Americans.

So I think she's done a terrific job in these first 50 days of getting underway with that.

Balancing family and work life

JUDY WOODRUFF: And very quickly to Melissa Harris-Lacewell, again, this role of mother, the first first lady in a long time to have two young children in the White House. How does that change our expectations of her, do you think?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I am myself a single mother with a young child about the same age as Michelle Obama's youngest, and I'll tell you, the most important thing that Michelle Obama did was to move her mother into the White House with her to help provide a network and support system.

I think for many of us who are balancing family and work life, watching Michelle Obama do it is a kind of challenge for us, to do the best that we can, but also a model for us to make sure that we're always putting around us structures that will help to support us in our role as mothers and as working professional women.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we are going to leave it there, watching the first lady, Michelle Obama. Thank you for joining us, Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Noelia Rodriguez. We appreciate it.

NOELIA RODRIGUEZ: Thanks, Judy.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thanks.

NOELIA RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.