Michelle Obama: First among equals

Barack Obama's victory was built on the power and charisma of the man himself. But how could you ignore the presence of the woman by his side on the road to the White House? You couldn't, but Emma Cowing asks what kind of First Lady Michelle will be

HER FAVOURITE dish is macaroni cheese, she claims to shop at discount chain Target for loo paper, calls her husband "buddy", and loves a boogie to the music of Stevie Wonder. Welcome to the world of the First Lady Elect, Michelle LaVaughn Obama.

While Barack Obama has stormed his way to victory in a media-saturated presidential campaign that has never before focused so much on the power and charisma of one individual, it has nevertheless been difficult to ignore the presence of the almost six-foot tall, elegant and rather formidable woman who has constantly been by his side.

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Throughout his campaign Michelle Obama has both championed and chided her husband, making campaigning speeches on his behalf and dropping press-friendly remarks about his habit of leaving the butter out. For this she earned special recognition during Obama's acceptance speech in Chicago on Tuesday night, when he described her as "the rock of our family, the love of my life, the nation's next First Lady". All that was missing was the drum roll.

But if, as most former first ladies will tell you, this unique and in some ways dated position is a full-time job (and indeed, Mrs Obama has already publicly stated that were her husband to win the election she would give up her job as Vice-President of the University of Chicago Hospitals because of the 'huge conflict'), just what sort of First Lady will this church-going 44-year-old from a lower-middle-class family on the south side of Chicago, mother of two children Sasha, 7, and Malia, 10, and fan of Dick Van Dyke Show reruns be?

As America's first African-American First Lady and one of the youngest presidential wives since Jackie Kennedy, she has, in some ways, no shoes to fill and an opportunity to mould the position to her own liking.

However, there has long been an accepted understanding within American politics that First Ladies fall into two categories: the ones who, like Laura Bush and Nancy Reagan (they are mostly Republican), are happy to smile sweetly, keep their noses out of government policy and busy themselves organising White House parties.

Then there are those like Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, who see the job as having a political slant and pursue their own campaigning agendas.

"She's smart enough to know the dangers inherent in having too high-profile or public a role, but she will remain Obama's sounding-board," says Alex Massie, commentator and blogger on American politics. "Also, of course, with two young children she won't have as much time for public engagements as some First Ladies."

But someone as fiendishly clever as Mrs Obama – she is a Princeton and Harvard Law School graduate and a successful lawyer in her own right (she and Obama met when he joined her Chicago law firm and she was appointed his 'mentor') – would not be entirely happy overseeing flower arrangements and making appearances on Sesame Street for the next four years.

She herself has said, when asked about the Nancy Reagan role model: "I can't do that. That's not me." As someone who has campaigned relentlessly about the need for 'change' as much as her husband, it is likely that she will become involved in some real issues.

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"The issues one might expect her to highlight would include access to healthcare and education," says Massie. "It's not that those are traditionally soft or feminine issues, but that they are areas in which there are particular and, in the case of education especially, chronic needs for African-Americans. (Also,] below the radar, these are areas in which charities and organisations that have the First Lady's ear and blessing can do a lot of good work."

Chris Stephen, The Scotsman's US correspondent, agrees. "Michelle is likely to take a course somewhere beyond the traditional meet-and-greet role of First Ladies and the co-presidency role created by Hillary Clinton," he says. "She is clearly one half of the Obama decision-making process and she appears to be the one person above all to whom Barack turns for guidance. But we won't be seeing her in a cabinet position; her role is likely to be maintaining the moral compass."

In an interview earlier this year, Mrs Obama gave some interesting hints about the sort of job she might do. "When people ask, 'What kind of First Lady will you be?' I'm going to try, in all this, to be honest, hopefully funny, and open, and share important parts of me with people, hopefully in a way that will help them think about their lives and avoid the mistakes we may have made in our lifetime. What you see on the trail is probably who I will be as First Lady, because that's really who I am."

The woman we saw on the trail was a formidable one. On the one hand she could be cheeky and jokey, once describing her husband as "snore-y and stinky" in the mornings. On the other, she seemed to garner a degree of awe for her sheer presence, with Vanity Fair magazine breathlessly describing her as looking "as down to earth as any other soccer mom and as glamorous as a model, while instantly commanding respect, even before she starts to speak". Quite a feat.

"She's fundamentally honest – goes out there, speaks her mind, jokes," David Axelrod, the Obama campaign's chief strategist told the New Yorker magazine. "She doesn't parse her words or select them with an antenna for political correctness."

For this, she has not always been beloved. The US media frequently portrayed her as an "angry black woman" and she garnered a degree of criticism for some loose-tongued remarks about not having pride in her own country. During this time she found an unlikely defender in Laura Bush, who remarked: "That's one of the things you learn and that's one of the really difficult parts both of running for president and for being the spouse of the president, and that is, everything you say is looked at and in many cases misconstrued." Perhaps for that reason she will remain wary of the highly politicised role that Hillary Clinton – who went on to become her husband's closest rival – took when she entered the White House in 1992.

"She's smart enough to know how much trouble Hillary caused Bill in his first term," says Massie. "There was never, quite rightly, any hint that the Obamas saw themselves as a 'buy one, get one free' team in the Clintonian manner.

"Her most important job, in some ways, is to help – and here the kids are allies – keep her husband sane and connected to some sort of reality. That's a tough job when your husband is a Senator; even tougher when he's the leader of the most powerful country on earth."

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Which is, presumably, why she and her husband are buying a puppy. During his election night speech, Obama revealed that his two young daughters would be receiving a new pet "that's coming with us to the White House".

It is an interesting clue about the sort of White House that Mrs Obama will want to keep; a relaxed and homely place without much of the pomp and circumstance that has adorned many previous First families, with room for homework and playtime (the Obamas do not have a nanny, although that may now have to change) and a few dirty pawmarks on the carpet.

Certainly, she seems determined it will not be the ideal that was Jack and Jackie Kennedy's Camelot.

"Camelot, to me, doesn't work," she told USA Today last year. "It was a fairy tale that turned out not to be completely true, because no-one can live up to that. And I don't want to live like that."


Eleanor Roosevelt (1933 to 1945)

The wife of president Franklin D Roosevelt was the first First Lady to hold news conferences and write a newspaper column. She was described as "the most active first lady of all time", and was a vocal advocate of the civil rights movement. After her husband's death, she said: "He might have been happier with a wife who was completely uncritical. That I was never able to be, and he had to find it in some other people. Nevertheless, I think I sometimes acted as a spur, even though the spurring wa

Bess Truman (1945 to 1953)

In direct contrast to her immediate predecessor, the wife of Harry S Truman has been described as "the least active (First Lady] of the 20th century". She never gave an interview as First Lady and once said her job was to "sit quietly on the podium next to her husband and make sure her hat was on straight".

She is said to have "detested" White House life, in particular the lack of privacy it entailed.

Her husband said later she was "not especially interested" in the "formalities and pomp or the artificiality which, as we had learned… inevitably surround the family of the president".

Jacqueline Kennedy (1961 to 1963)

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If Roosevelt was an active force within the White House and beyond, and Truman a reluctant "ceremonial" participant, John F Kennedy's wife made First Lady into a celebrity role. Just 31 when her husband was elected, and in possession of a fashion sense that would become legendary, her style shaped a generation and it influence continues to this day. Her renowned social graces and charm brought her diplomatic influence. When Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was asked to shake president Kennedy's hand for a photo, he replied: "I'd like to shake her hand first."

Barbara Bush (1989 to 1993)

She may not have sought direct political power, but as the wife of one president and later mother of another, her influence in the White House should not be underestimated. While her husband was in office she campaigned to redress prejudices about Aids and championed literacy programmes. She attributed her popularity to her matronly figure and white hair. She described herself as "everybody's mother".

Although her outspoken views – such as her comment that reports about soldiers' deaths in Iraq weren't "relevant" – have at times provoked controversy, she has said: "The First Lady is going to be criticised no matter what she does. If she does too little. If she does too much. And I think you just have to be yourself and do the best you can."

Hillary Clinton (1993 to 2001)

She is regarded as the most politically powerful First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. Her husband campaigned for the presidency on a "two for the price of one ticket". Within five days of coming to power he named her head of the President's Task Force on Health Care Reform and she was the first First Lady to have an office in the West Wing.

Having weathered various scandals, including the Whitewater controversy (over an alleged dodgy real-estate deal, over which she became the first First Lady to be subpoenaed to testify before a Federal grand jury) and the Monica Lewinsky affair, she retained enough power and popularity to run for the Democratic presidential candidate nomination.

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