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Division of Labor
Ask anyone in the East Wing how Michelle sees the role of First Lady and you hear a lot about "supporting the President's agenda." But what happens if she disagrees with her husband about some policy he's embraced? "I'm sure I do what every spouse does," she says, as though their potential disagreements are in any way like any other couple's. "We'll have conversations, and we'll share our opinions over the course of the conversation. But I don't want to have a say. Really, there are a lot of times when I'm like, Don't tell me what happened today at work. I just don't want to hear it, because I want the home space to really be free of that." Unlike in the Clinton White House, when a member of the First Lady's staff was in nearly every important meeting, Michelle does not send an emissary to key policy debates or the 7:30 a.m. meeting in chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's office. But no one who heard her on the campaign trail can imagine for a minute that she doesn't have strong views on many issues, or that her husband doesn't know what they are.
She has dropped some of the traditional baggage that First Ladies have hauled around for eons, passing up this gala or that benefit for the first time since Bess Truman's day and planting her famous garden to teach a lesson about healthy eating. Like all First Ladies, Michelle will at some point do or say something that gets her in trouble, and it won't just be wearing $540 sneakers to work in the food bank, the way she did last month. (See pictures of Barack Obama taken by everyday Americans.)
But in her Technicolor dresses and famously buff bare arms, it's hard not to wonder if Michelle isn't daring us all to just roll with it, to be a little bolder at a time when the country could use all the courage it can muster. "You've got to make choices that make sense for you," she says, "because there's always going to be somebody who'll think you should do something differently." When prodded, she admits with a wry smile that there are moments when she misses her old, anonymous knock-around days. "It's a lot easier to live your life," she says, "when everything you do doesn't have a consequence."
But that path, at least for a while, is blocked. Just before our interview, she'd been out on the South Lawn walking Bo when she took a wrong turn. "We happen to walk past the gate where the visitors were coming, and I heard this 'Yeaaaa! It's Bo!' ... Bo is like, 'Who's calling me?' " She's laughing now at the spectacle of a dog who is world-famous, at a house trafficked by thousands of strangers every day, at a life in which every stroll can become a headline. "I was like, Oh, darn, I should have gone around the other way."
With reporting by Jay Newton-Small and Karen Tumulty / Washington