A first lady who fol­lowed her own path more than prece­dent

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

When Michelle Obama con­sid­ered the daunt­ing prospect of be­com­ing first lady, she avoided turn­ing to books by her pre­de­ces­sors for guid­ance. In­stead, she turned in­ward. “I didn’t want to be in­flu­enced by how they de­fined the role,” Mrs Obama once said. That meant do­ing it her way: shap­ing the role around her fam­ily, specif­i­cally her two young daugh­ters, and not let­ting her new re­spon­si­bil­i­ties con­sume her.

Mrs Obama has been a pow­er­ful, if some­what enig­matic, force in her hus­band’s White House. She chose her mo­ments in the of­ten un­for­giv­ing spot­light with great care and re­sisted pres­sure to be­come more en­gaged in the mud­sling­ing of par­ti­san pol­i­tics. As she nav­i­gated her way through, the woman who grew up on the South Side of Chicago dis­cov­ered a tal­ent for television and a com­fort with Hollywood A-lis­ters, haute cou­ture and so­cial me­dia. And she used all of those el­e­ments to pro­mote her causes: child­hood obe­sity, sup­port for mil­i­tary fam­i­lies, girls’ ed­u­ca­tion.

Friends say she charted that path largely on her own. “What she did was she sort of lis­tened to her­self and al­lowed her own in­ner voice and strength and di­rec­tion to lead her in the way that felt most au­then­tic to her. And I think watch­ing some­body makes you want to do that for your­self,” Oprah Win­frey told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

‘Food po­lice’

Mrs Obama grap­pled with the child­hood obe­sity is­sue be­fore be­com­ing first lady af­ter a doc­tor warned about her daugh­ters’ weight. At the White House, she de­cided to share her ex­pe­ri­ence and started by plant­ing a veg­etable gar­den. That led the fol­low­ing year, in 2010, to the launch of her anti-child­hood obe­sity ini­tia­tive, “Let’s Move.”

The first lady ap­pealed to elected of­fi­cials, food mak­ers, sell­ers, restau­rant chains and oth­ers to try to make healthy food more ac­ces­si­ble. She lob­bied law­mak­ers to add more fruit, veg­eta­bles and whole grains, and limit fat, sugar and sodium in the fed­eral school lunch pro­gram.

That led to the first up­date to the pro­gram in decades and, for Mrs Obama, the process was akin to a crash course in Wash­ing­ton sausage-mak­ing. The ef­fort was not uni­ver­sally wel­comed. Repub­li­cans in Congress wanted to re­verse the rules. Oth­ers said Mrs Obama was act­ing like the “food po­lice.” Even the kids she wanted to help added to the backlash. Some stu­dents posted pho­tos of lunches they found un­ap­peal­ing on Twit­ter with the hash­tag #ThanksMichelleObama, or tossed the food into the trash.

Mrs Obama would never again try to work closely with Congress, opt­ing in­stead to use her plat­form to press in­dus­try to change its ways. It’s too early to know how Mrs. Obama’s ef­forts may af­fect child­hood obe­sity rates long term, but ad­vo­cates be­lieve she helped change the de­bate around healthy eat­ing. They worry about the fate of Mrs Obama’s ef­fort un­der a White House and Congress that will be con­trolled by the GOP.

Mrs Obama said some peo­ple ini­tially won­dered why she would bother with such a “soft­ball is­sue” but “now, all those chal­lenges and crit­i­cisms are off the ta­ble.” She told talk-show host Rachael Ray that “at least we’ve be­come very aware as a so­ci­ety that this is one of our most im­por­tant health is­sues.” She’s said that when she leaves the White House next month, a few days af­ter her 53rd birth­day, she’ll con­tinue to work on the is­sues that en­gaged her as first lady.

‘Mom in chief ’

Be­ing first lady was never some­thing Mrs Obama imag­ined, given her mod­est up­bring­ing, her dis­taste for pol­i­tics and hav­ing never seen her skin color on a US pres­i­dent and first lady. Her early aver­sion to pol­i­tics de­vel­oped while watch­ing her fa­ther nav­i­gate Chicago pol­i­tics for his job with the city wa­ter de­part­ment, and was re­in­forced by her hus­band’s pur­suit of a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. Both Oba­mas have said his po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion had strained their mar­riage and fam­ily.

Once in the White House, Mrs Obama vowed to pro­tect her then 10- and 7-yearold daugh­ters’ right to a nor­mal child­hood. She de­clared be­ing “mom in chief” to Malia and Sasha as her pri­or­ity, irk­ing women who hoped the first lady might not al­low her­self to be con­strained by stereo­types. Mrs Obama was an en­thu­si­as­tic White House host­ess. She rarely spoke about is­sues that were out­side of her port­fo­lio. — AP

WASH­ING­TON: In this May 3, 2011, file photo, first lady Michelle Obama dances with stu­dents at Al­ice Deal Middle School in north­west Wash­ing­ton dur­ing a sur­prise visit for the school’s Let’s Move! event. — AP

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