TOPICS > Politics

Michelle Obama Sets Goals for Family, New Life in the White House

January 22, 2009 at 6:40 PM EST
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As the new first lady, Michelle Obama's background and style have captivated the public. White House senior adviser and Obama family friend Valerie Jarrett discusses the first lady's role and provides insight on life in the Obama White House.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama is not the only one who has moved into a new role this week. When Michelle Obama stood next to her husband as he took the oath of office, she, too, assumed a new position, as the country’s first African-American first lady.

But with the pomp and circumstance and choice of an inaugural ball gown behind her, the 45-year-old Princeton- and Harvard-educated mother has turned to another task: settling daughters Malia and Sasha into their new home.

Besides her own family, Mrs. Obama has cited issues around working women and military families as ones that she’d like to focus on during her time in the White House.

For more on how the first family is adjusting to their new home and how Mrs. Obama sees her role, we’re joined by Valerie Jarrett. She is a senior adviser to President Obama and a long-time family friend.

Valerie Jarrett, it’s good to have you with us.

VALERIE JARRETT, Senior adviser to President Obama: Thank you so much, Judy. It’s a pleasure to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you know this family so well, how are they adjusting?

VALERIE JARRETT: Oh, they’re terrific. It’s been a whirlwind of a week, as you can imagine, but I think they’re settling in nicely.

I have to tell you, the staff at the White House has been so welcoming, and accommodating, and professional. They’ve done everything possible to really make the first family feel welcome and get right in and get comfy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The press secretary, Robert Gibbs, was saying today that at one point on Tuesday the president said, “Where do I go next?” Where was he when he said that? Everybody’s curious.

VALERIE JARRETT: You know, I think he was walking into a reception that they had back at the White House after the end of their evening. They’d been to 10 balls, and I think he was just exhausted. And so it is a little confusing up there, and finding his way around is not as easy as one might think.

But it was a terrific celebration, I think, not just for them, but for our country.

An active first 48 hours

Valerie Jarrett
White House Senior Adviser
I think [President Obama] is sending a very strong message that we are in serious times here in our country with the economic crisis, and two wars, and he wanted to send a very clear message that he's ready, and it's time to get going.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the president's been pretty active over the first 48 hours. He's been swearing the staff in. He's been to the State Department. He's been signing orders.

VALERIE JARRETT: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is he sending a message with all this activity?

VALERIE JARRETT: I think he's sending a very strong message that we are in serious times here in our country with the economic crisis, and two wars, and he wanted to send a very clear message that he's ready, and it's time to get going.

The American people are really counting on him to get a lot done in a very short window of time. So, yes, it's intended to send a strong message.

MARGARET WARNER: There's a lot of focus, Valerie Jarrett, on the fact that he insisted on having a BlackBerry.

VALERIE JARRETT: Yes, well, you know, he likes that BlackBerry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why was that so important to him?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, you know what? I think it gives him a sense of independence and connection to the outside world. I think everybody's been talking about the bubble, and there is a bubble, certainly, that surrounds him, in terms of security and being in the White House.

And so this gives him an ability to contact a friend and find out what happened in a sporting event or whatever it is that he feels like. And so he'll keep it, but there'll just be a small circle of people who have access to it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is he worried about being isolated?

VALERIE JARRETT: Yes, I think he is. He's a person -- part of why I think he connected so well with the American people is he enjoys people. He enjoys a wide diversity of folks. And the president of the United States by definition has to live a more isolated life. And so this is just one way for him to stay in touch.

First family adjusting well

Valerie Jarrett
White House Senior Adviser
Part of what makes Michelle such a terrific mother is that she kind of couples unconditional love with high expectations. And she wants her girls to grow up to be responsible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the daughters, the girls, Malia and Sasha? How is it going for them in these early days?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, he was joking the other day -- he said, you know, everyone thinks he's so cool. Well, my goodness, wait until you see how cool these two are. They've had a terrific time at Sidwell. The kids have been very friendly and outgoing and welcoming to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The school, yes.

VALERIE JARRETT: The school has been terrific. And it's hard to start in the middle of the year, but I think they just fell right into the routine, and I think they love their new home. They both have rooms that are decorated beautifully and consistent with their tastes, which was, I think, very important to Michelle and to the president. They wanted to make sure that this was not just the White House and the people's house, but also home to their children.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are they really going to make their own beds?

VALERIE JARRETT: Oh, absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mrs. Obama was serious about that?

VALERIE JARRETT: Oh, absolutely. I think that part of what makes Michelle such a terrific mother is that she kind of couples unconditional love with high expectations. And she wants her girls to grow up to be responsible. That's how she was raised by her parents. And so I think she'll instill in them the kind of values where they do know how to take care of themselves and have their own chores and have a sense of responsibility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, what about Mrs. Obama? How is she settling in? We saw a lot of her on Inauguration Day, a little bit yesterday morning at the prayer service. How is it going?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, after the prayer service, she had something that I thought was a terrific idea. She had an open house. And there was a lottery for people who were here in D.C. who wanted to come to the White House.

And so I think she's fine. She enjoyed it. It was a way of saying, "This is the people's house," and that everyone's welcome. And she'll be thinking of new and creative ways of making the house feel more open, but also being engaged in the community of Washington, D.C. I think that's important to both the president and to Michelle Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does she talk about her role to you and to others? Does she have a clear vision or an idea of what she wants to do as first lady?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, I think it will evolve over time. I think we've been very clear that right now her first priority is making sure that the girls are OK, the transition.

You know, they've been uprooted from Chicago, a home that they've known their entire life, a new school, a new home, new friends. She wants to make sure that they make the transition and are happy and well-adjusted. So that's her first priority.

And then after that, as you mentioned in the opening, she's very interested in military spouses. On the campaign trail, she met so many incredible people who highlighted the unique challenges of being a spouse married to someone who's serving in the military, that, really, it's not just the spouse that's at war, it's the whole family that's at war, and the challenges that they face.

She's also interested in volunteerism. And so the National Day of Service was a way of kicking off a new initiative that's important to both the president and the first lady, so she'll be involved in that, as well.

And then just generally the work-life balance that women face everyday, who are trying to be good wives, good mothers, and also hold down jobs. And so putting the spotlight on those challenges I think is important to her. And I think her role will evolve over time.

'She really is a role model'

Valerie Jarrett
White House Senior Adviser
I think Michelle knew coming in that there was going to be a heightened attention to her, as she accepted the role of first lady, and that's how it should be. I mean, she really is a role model.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much does she feel the weight of being the first African-American first lady?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, certainly it's a sense of responsibility. I think she's humbled by the honor. I think that she understands she's a role model, but she's lived her life that way. I mean, Michelle has always done what she's supposed to do; in a sense, she's lived the American dream.

You know, she worked hard in school. She came from humble means, and yet her parents instilled in her this work ethic and a sense of responsibility to give back, a commitment to public service.

And so her life is really, I think, led her to this moment. And I think she's going to thrive as first lady.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think that she feels that there's an additional responsibility connected with her place in history and that connection or...

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, certainly. I think any time you're a first, you do feel a certain additional responsibility. But she's been a role model her whole life. I mean, she's always kind of broken through and done what others haven't done before.

And so, yes, this is kind of the biggest league there is, but I think she's more than ready for the role, and I think it will send a message to people around the United States and also around the world about what kind of a first lady she can be.

And she's proud to be the first African-American, but she's also just so amazingly ready for this challenge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think everybody agrees the role of first lady is such a complicated one. On the one hand, people are saying, "What are you going to do?" And on the other hand, they're focused on what she's wearing. There's been so much written over her clothes.

VALERIE JARRETT: Oh, yes. Well, that's the nature. And I think that's...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is she comfortable in that spotlight?

VALERIE JARRETT: Oh, absolutely. I think Michelle knew coming in that there was going to be a heightened attention to her, as she accepted the role of first lady, and that's how it should be. I mean, she really is a role model. People look up to her. They're very curious about the family.

And I think that goes along with the role, and she's very comfortable with that. I mean, Michelle is so engaging and connects so well with people that it's natural that they would be curious about her.

Defining the first lady's role

Valerie Jarrett
White House Senior Adviser
Michelle really has not expressed an interest in [weighing in on policy]. That doesn't mean that she's not interested in issues, such as the issues that we talked about, the work-life balance, et cetera.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You point out she's been in the spotlight much of her life. She went to Princeton, Harvard Law School. She was a hospital executive. She worked in a nonprofit as an executive, was a lawyer. What is she going to do with all of that professional experience, do you think?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, I think it comes with her and it serves her well no matter what she does. I think that the role of first lady is a very serious role, and I think that, no matter what she takes on, she's going to attack it with professionalism and thoroughness.

There's no one who's more prepared for whatever she does than Michelle Obama. The discipline and the groundedness of her, I think, will serve her well. And the fact that she's well-educated and has had a remarkable professional career will only serve her well as first lady.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think she will from time to time weigh in on policy?

VALERIE JARRETT: You know, Michelle really has not expressed an interest in that. That doesn't mean that she's not interested in issues, such as the issues that we talked about, the work-life balance, et cetera.

But what she often says is, look, my husband's surrounded by experts in the field. I'm not looking to be the foreign policy expert. I have plenty to do with my role.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in terms of -- you said a minute ago it's all been very smooth for her. No sign of nervousness, apprehension, doubt?

VALERIE JARRETT: Oh, well, you know, doubt, I think everybody is certainly nervous. It's a daunting role to have. But I also think that Michelle is very secure in herself. She's grounded. She has both feet planted firmly on the ground.

I think the campaign trail was very helpful. People had a chance to get to know Michelle all across the country. And there was such an outpouring of love and affection for her that I think she feels really good. And the celebration on the Inauguration Day and that evening just simply reinforced that.

So I think that the American people have been extremely generous and gracious with her, and that gives her a level of comfort.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And still her husband's closest adviser?

VALERIE JARRETT: Oh, well, she's his best friend. They're kindred spirits. They're absolutely -- you could see how, with that first dance, they're still absolutely mad about one another. So, yes, absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, longtime friend of both the president and the first lady, thank you very much.

VALERIE JARRETT: My pleasure. Thank you, Judy.