Sunday, February 15, 2009

Barack's Not So Secret Weapon -- Michelle

I'm no one to espouse the endurance of marriage since mine lasted only five years. However, I know a good one when I see one. Ones as endured by my parents, my brother Larry, my son Matt and, yes, Barack and Michelle Obama.

The thing is, you never know what lurks behind closed doors in these marriages. Outsiders, including close family members, judge the marriages on the public face they project.

And the public perception of the Obamas is one of a loving, give-and-take compact where one feeds off the strength of the other. For two years I have made mental notes of the joint interviews the Obamas have conducted. It is my belief he needs Michelle more than she needs Barack. And, the president, more than anyone, recognizes that.

Excuse the psycho-babble, but Barack exudes confidence of a brilliant mind and most often is the smartest guy in the room whether it be the 70,000-seat Invesco Stadium in Denver or the confines of the Oval Office in the White House.

When his ego gets over-inflated, Michelle is there to puncture it. She sees in her husband a man with internal faults, not the messiah his rabid followers proclaim. Before stepping on stage before his historic keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Michelle's cautionary note: "Don't blow it."

In the interviews, Michelle is not at all reluctant to swipe jibes at Barack's foibles. He's messy, doesn't make the bed and their daughters think he's "smelly" first thing in the mornings. Michelle said he doesn't pitch in and wash the dishes which he denies, good naturedly.

It must be remembered that Michelle in her own right is a brilliant attorney and administrator and speaks with brutal honesty. As first lady, Michelle has surprised all the so-called experts by extolling the virtues of her husband's policies and exceeding her primary role as "Mom-in-Chief."

The nation has not seen such versatility in a first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt and the public can't seem to get enough of it. Her critics are mostly snarly, berating insignificant stuff such as the fashion of dresses she styles.

Having said all that, we reprint the entire story the Associated Press filed Sunday on Michelle Obama.

WASHINGTON - Michelle Obama said it: Washington is her home now and she wants to get to know it.

She is making the rounds, meeting federal workers at Cabinet departments, reading to children, chatting with teens, touring a neighborhood health center, dropping in at Howard University and enjoying family night at the Kennedy Center. She's even splashed across the cover of the March issue of Vogue, with a headline that proclaims her "The First Lady the World's Been Waiting For."

That was just the first two weeks of February.

The first lady, who had seemed to suggest she'd take her time settling in to her new role, is off to a fast start — like a cannonball, in the words of Letitia Baldrige, who served as social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy.

"We were taught that you have to get to know the community that you're in, and you have to be a part of that community, you have to get to know it in order to, you know, actively engage in it," Mrs. Obama told a teenager at Mary's Center, a community health center in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, who asked why she was visiting.

"And D.C. is our community now. It's our home," she said.

Her trips outside the gated White House compound serve several purposes, including giving her a chance to learn about the complexities of a city she decided against relocating to after Barack Obama became a senator in 2005.

His presidency has brought her, and their 10- and 7-year-old daughters, here now. And, Mrs. Obama's mother migrated, too, to provide crucial backup in taking care of Sasha and Malia.

"Our first job as new members of this community is to listen, and to learn and to be thankful and grateful for what people have already done," Mrs. Obama said at Howard, where excited students jockeyed for a glimpse of the first lady.

Except, the president is "real busy right now. So I figured, well, I got a little time on my hands, and, you know, while the kids are at school I want to come out and hear about the programs. I want to meet the students," she said at Mary's Center.

Mrs. Obama is acting as an ambassador to the public, another set of eyes and ears for the president.

She set out on a listening tour of the federal bureaucracy on Feb. 2, promising to go from agency to agency "to learn, to listen, to take information back where possible" and meet "our new co-workers and our new neighbors."
She's met scores of government workers, many of whom waited in line for hours at the departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Interior, for the chance to see her and hear what she had to say.

The president and the first lady made a surprise visit to a Washington D.C. charter school and red stories to the kids. On these pep rally-like visits, where she thanks federal workers for their service, she boosts the spirits of a group that sometimes felt neglected by the previous administration. She doubles as Obama's salesman and has been explaining how money from his $787 billion economic recovery package will affect their work.

At the Education Department, she said the department will be "at the forefront" of much of what the administration wants to do, including renovating and modernizing schools, increasing Pell Grants and providing tuition tax credits.

She talked to HUD workers about reducing home foreclosures, calling homeownership one of the "building blocks for strong neighborhoods, for strong schools and strong families." She said the stimulus bill will put people back to work by improving a program that helps communities buy foreclosed or abandoned properties for rehabilitation or resale.

Her eight minutes of remarks at Interior echoed the president, including calls to stem climate change and use natural resources responsibly. "Sound energy and environmental policies are going to help create thousands of jobs," she said.

Stacy A. Cordery, who studies first ladies, said Mrs. Obama is warming up to her role.
"She's doing uncontroversial things. She's not going out on a limb. She's not making her own statements. She's not using her own voice," said Cordery, who teaches history at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Ill. "She's still channeling her husband's voice, and that's a traditionally accepted role for women in our society."

Baldrige, who was social secretary to Mrs. Kennedy, noted Mrs. Obama's active schedule during the presidential campaign and said she expected the same from her as first lady.

"I thought she would go off like a cannonball, and she has," Baldrige said.

Baldrige and Cordery said moving Mrs. Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, to the White House with the family may be making it easier for Mrs. Obama to get out and about. Baldrige called it a "genius idea."

Robinson often cared for her granddaughters after school when the Obamas lived in Chicago. She retired from her bank job to spend more time with them after Mrs. Obama's campaign schedule intensified.

Mrs. Obama's coming out began nine days after the Jan. 20 inauguration, when she held a reception in the State Dining Room for Lilly Ledbetter shortly after Obama signed a wage discrimination bill named for the Alabama retiree.

She started visiting Cabinet departments the following week, and joined her husband to read to children at a local charter school on what so far has been the worst day of his young administration. On Feb. 3, two of Obama's nominees for top administration posts withdrew from consideration because of tax problems.

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