It was just two days after the Inauguration when an e-mail went around to Michelle Obama's staff, instructing everyone to be in the East Room of the White House at 3 that afternoon. The First Lady's advisers arrived to find the room filled with ushers and plumbers, electricians and maids and kitchen crew gathered in a huge circle, and Michelle in a T shirt and ponytail, very casual and very much in charge.
"This is my team that came with me from Chicago," Michelle said, pointing to her communications staff and policy people. "This is my team who works here already," she went on, indicating the ring of veterans around the room. Many of the household staff had served for decades; some had postponed retirement because they wanted to serve an African-American President. And so the two groups formed concentric rings and spent the next hour or so making sure that everyone had a chance to meet everyone else. I want you to know that you won't be judged based on whether they know your name, Michelle had warned her advisers. You'll be judged based on whether you know theirs. (See pictures of Michelle Obama behind the scenes.)
The White House became as much Michelle Obama's stage as her husband's even before she colored the fountains green for St. Patrick's Day, or mixed the Truman china with the World's Fair glasses at a state dinner, or installed beehives on the South Lawn, or turned the East Room into a jazz lounge for a night or sacrificed her first sock to the First Puppy. Of all the revelations of her first 100 days, the most striking was that she made it seem natural. She did not spend decades dreaming of this destination, and maybe that's the secret. "I'm not supposed to be here," she says again and again. And ever since she arrived, she has been asking, "What are the things that we can do differently here, the things that have never been done, the people who've never seen or experienced this White House?"
Three generations, two adorable girls and a dog no First Family has lived with the weight of hope and hype that has landed on the Obamas. Clothes they wear fly off the shelves. Dog breeders from Germany to Australia couldn't keep up with the demand for Portuguese water dogs after Bo debuted. Michelle is the first First Lady to make Maxim's hottest-women-in-the-world list. (She's No. 93; it probably wouldn't be proper for a First Lady to come in any higher.) Cameras with lenses that can count her pores from three states away are trained on her around the clock. Former East Wing veterans marvel at the lovesick coverage she gets: when Oscar de la Renta questions her fashion sense "You don't ... go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater" the response is, essentially, Well, what does he know? This is what a paradigm shift looks like. (See pictures of Michelle Obama's fashion diplomacy.)
The question now is what she plans to do with all this attention. We ask the usual questions of any new First Lady: What is she really like? How does she see her role? But it is only of Michelle Obama that we ask, What does she mean? Few First Ladies have embedded themselves so quickly in the world's imagination. And none have traveled so far, not just from Chicago's South Side to the East Wing, but from the caricatured Angry Black Woman of last spring to her exalted status as a New American Icon, as if her arrival will magically reverse eight years of anti-American spitballing, elevate the black middle class, promote family values, give voice to the voiceless and inspire us all to live healthier, more generous lives.
She admits that the sheer symbolic power of the role is perhaps greater than she anticipated. "I tried not to come into this with too many expectations one way or the other," she says on a sunny May afternoon in her East Wing office. "I felt like part of my job and I still feel like that is to be open to where this needs to go." She's always shown a shrewd eye for the strategic detour, suspending her career in favor of helping her husband get elected, then getting her daughters settled and her garden planted and, in the process, disarming the critics who cast her as a black radical in a designer dress. She will say she's just doing what comes naturally. But whether by accident or design, or a little of both, she has arrived at a place where her very power is magnified by her apparent lack of interest in it. "Over the years, the role of First Lady has been perceived as largely symbolic," Hillary Clinton observed in her memoirs. "She is expected to represent an ideal and largely mythical concept of American womanhood." That was not Clinton's favorite part of the job. Maybe this is Michelle's true advantage: she appears at peace, even relieved, that her power is symbolic rather than institutional. It makes her less threatening, and more potent at the same time especially since her presence at the White House has unique significance. (See pictures of when Michelle met Hillary.)
The great-great-granddaughter of slaves now occupies a house built by them, one of the most professionally accomplished First Ladies ever cheerfully chooses to call herself Mom in Chief, and the South Side girl whose motivation often came from defying people who tried to stop her now gets to write her own set of rules.