Transition, too, for Michelle Obama to first lady

By: AP
By: AP

WASHINGTON (AP) -- She's been compared to Jacqueline Kennedy, is every bit as high-powered as Hillary Rodham Clinton was and has praised Laura Bush's calm and rational approach to issues.

So what kind of first lady will Michelle Obama be?

It may be too soon to know - she's probably still trying to figure it all out herself. This much is certain: She will be the kind of first lady this country hasn't seen in decades: the mother of young children.

But Barack Obama has portrayed his wife as one of his top advisers and it's a safe bet she will continue in that role at the White House, as first ladies before her have done. He has described her as the family's "rock" and told Newsweek magazine she had "veto power" over his decision to run for president.

Aides say publicly she is not interested in shaping policy or reserving a seat for herself at her husband's decision-making table. She prefers, at least for now, to focus on easing the transition for Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7 - getting them in new schools, settled and comfortable with a new way of life.

The girls are her priority, she has said often, the last thing she thinks about before falling asleep at night and the first thing on her mind when she wakes up in the morning.

During the campaign, she set her schedule so she would be home to tuck them into bed and see them off to school.

Not since 1977, when 9-year-old Amy Carter moved in, will there be such young children at the White House.

"My first job in all honesty is going to continue to be mom-in-chief," she told Ebony magazine, "making sure that in this transition, which will be even more of a transition for the girls ... that they are settled and that they know they will continue to be the center of our universe."

Michelle Obama was a high-level administrator at the University of Chicago Medical Center before taking a leave to help her husband. She knows about the juggling act working mothers perform and wants to work on the issue as first lady.

"How to make sure our policies are structured in a way that supports that balance, whether it's more work/family leave, whether it's better health care. There are a lot of policies that go along with allowing women that freedom," she said.

Valerie Jarrett, a longtime family friend who is helping lead the president-elect transition team, said in a broadcast interview Sunday: "Having a seat at .... the table and being co-president is not something she's interested in doing."

First ladies often start out slow, then pick up the pace as they become more comfortable in their roles.

An Ivy League-educated lawyer, Michelle Obama was criticized during the campaign and Jarrett's comments could be taken as the beginning of an effort to lower her profile, de-emphasize her adviser role and present a more traditional, first lady persona, possibly to avoid repeating the mistake the Clintons made.

Though Barack Obama said no such thing, Bill Clinton joked during the 1992 campaign that the country would get two for one if he was elected.

A high-powered lawyer and children's advocate before he became president, Hillary Clinton accepted an assignment from him early in his administration to overhaul the nation's health care system. She failed, damaging herself and her husband's administration in the process.

Laura Bush took things slow, but grew increasingly comfortable during the past eight years with her public platform and ability to draw attention to issues. She championed the rights of women in Afghanistan, delivered some her husband's weekly radio addresses and spoke out against the crackdown on pro-democracy activists in the southeast Asian nation of Myanmar. She also has traveled through Europe, the Middle East and Africa on her own.

She even presided over a news conference in the White House briefing room earlier this year, rare for a first lady, that was called to criticize Myanmar's military leaders for ineptness after a killer cyclone struck the country.

So, back to the question of what kind of first lady Michelle Obama will be.

There are some clues, including from her.

Comparisons to Jacqueline Kennedy have centered on style and fashion. Watch for Michelle Obama to become a trendsetter, possibly a reluctant one. A sleeveless, off-the-rack, black-and-white dress she wore during an appearance on "The View" quickly sold out. And she recently told comedian Jay Leno that the ensemble she wore on his show came from J. Crew.

Her approach to issues? Perhaps calm and rational, like her husband - and Laura Bush.

The first lady defended Michelle Obama this year after Republicans criticized her for saying that for the first time in her adult life she was proud of her country. Laura Bush said comments made during the heat of a campaign are closely watched and misconstrued.

Michelle Obama said on "The View" that she was touched by the comments and had sent Laura Bush a note.

"And that's what I like about Laura Bush. You know, just calm, rational approach to these issues. And you know, I'm taking some cues. I mean, there's a balance. There's a reason why people like her. It's because she doesn't, sort of, you know, fuel the fire."

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