SHE DID IT HER WAY: THE FIRST LADY’S LEGACY
When Michelle Obama considered the daunting prospect of becoming first lady, she purposely 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. She instinctively knew she had to define the job “very uniquely and specifically to me and who I was.”
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.
Throughout her eight years, 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.
At times, she’s been more traditional than some expected — or wanted — from this first lady. At other times, she’s been eager to update stuffy conventions associated with the office.
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 — with at least some success.
When she leaves the White House next month, just a few days after celebrating her 53rd birthday, Mrs. Obama will do so not just as a political figure, but as a luminary with international influence.
Friends say she charted that path largely on her own.
“She sort of listened to herself and al-
lowed her own inner voice and strength and direction to lead her in the way that felt most authentic to her,” Oprah Winfrey told The Associated Press. “And I think watching somebody makes you want to do that for yourself.”
Mrs. Obama grappled with the childhood obesity issue before becoming first lady; a doctor had warned her about her daughters’ weight.
At the White House, she decided to share her experience with the country and started by planting the first vegetable garden there in more than 60 years. That led the following year, in 2010, to the launch of her 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 to 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.
Mrs. Obama’s push to put the country on a health kick extended to exercise — and she made herself exhibit A.
To promote “Let’s Move,” the first lady often donned athletic wear and ran around with kids at sports clinics, some on the South Lawn. She twirled a hula hoop around her waist 142 times and kick-boxed in a video of the gym workout that helped tone the upper arms she showed off regularly, as in her official White House photo.
She did pushups with Ellen DeGeneres, raced in a potato sack against latenight TV’s Jimmy Fallon in the East Room and shimmied with a turnip in a brief video popular on social media — all to show that exercise can be fun.
“I’m pretty much willing to make a complete fool of myself to get our kids moving,” she once said.
Instead she turned herself into a fitness guru and a figure significantly more popular than her husband.
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.
Mrs. Obama was an enthusiastic White House hostess. She rarely spoke about issues that were outside of her portfolio. She crafted her public schedule around her daughters and limited travel so she could spend time with them.
The Obamas’ parenting style — described by both Obamas as warm, but strict — made them role models, a point of pride, particularly in the African-American community. “We have heard no Obama children drama,” said Ingrid Saunders Jones, national chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women.
In the final weeks of the presidential race, Mrs. Obama set aside her distaste for politics to wage one last campaign, an ultimately futile attempt to help elect Democrat Hillary Clinton. She quickly became one of most passionate Democratic voices opposing Trump and calling him out for “bragging about sexually assaulting women.” It was yet another moment when Mrs. Obama again seemed to be following her path rather than precedent.
First lady Michelle Obama endorses healthful eating habits during a visit with preschoolers at the Penacook Community Center in 2012 in Concord, N.H., as part of her Let’s Move initiative. Jim Cole, The Associated Press