Michelle Obama: First Lady and Then Some

In three short days, Michelle Obama has expanded on her role as mom-in-chief to take on new and somewhat unusual duties for a first lady – actively pitching her husband’s economic stimulus package, now facing trouble in the Senate.

As she makes a “get-to-know-you” tour of federal agencies, Obama is using her considerable platform to amplify the message coming out of the White House: pass the stimulus plan, and pass it now. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has ramped up his efforts as well, reaching out to Republicans one-on-one, doing back-to-back TV interviews and tapping his grassroots network through the Internet.

The White House seems to be betting that Michelle Obama can work some of her old campaign magic—she was nicknamed “the closer,” because she was so effective at getting undecided voters on board.

Some experts said it was surprising to hear a new first lady making such a direct political appeal for her husband’s specific policy initiatives, and so soon after moving into the White House.

“I thought that she would be getting the kids comfortable in school and two or three weeks out or in a month, after she had talked with all of her staff, there would be a big roll out for her project,” said Myra Gutin, a first ladies expert. “I never expected this. It’s going to turn out to be an interesting first 100 days for her as well.”

Her staff has said she’s just being herself, following through on her wishes to get out more in DC and mix with local residents, all while supporting her husband. But in her first visit to the Education Department Monday, she mixed in some stumping for the recovery plan. By Wednesday, at the Department of Housing and Urban Development agency, she had clearly hit her stride, barely referring to notes at all.

The department “is going to play a critical role in implementing elements of the economic recovery and reinvestment plan that will help our communities. This plan is important,” she said. She said money in the nearly $900 billion plan would go toward a program to stabilize neighborhoods by purchasing abandoned homes to rehabilitate.

She went on to tick off how much working families would save through weatherization efforts paid for by the bill, about $350 per household, and how many more affordable housing units would be created, 15,000. She also gave a nod to one of her pet issues, military families, saying the bill included money to fix up military family housing.

Immediately after the election, Michelle Obama laid low, with her staff saying she was busy getting her daughters ready for the move to Washington and a new school. But she has been building a staff of political and policy pros in the office of the first lady that suggested she would be taking a more active public role.

Mary Finch Hoyt, press secretary for Rosalynn Carter and a first ladies historian, said that normally first ladies pick a project early on and stick to it. Carter spent the first days in the East Wing, bringing people in and laying out a plan for the mental health commission, Hoyt recalled. Hillary Clinton went straight for health care, though that effort faltered.

But barely two weeks into her husband’s presidency, Obama has been a master multi-tasker, playing hostess to White House events, touting equal pay legislation, reading at a local school, and now, weighing in on what will likely be the signature issue for her husband’s administration.

“She’s more active and public than any first lady that I can remember. I find it amazing that she seems to go so easily from one place to the other and it doesn’t seem that she feels that it is necessary to formalize a project yet,” Hoyt said. “But maybe this is what she has to do to help her husband. It’s not just walking in and having a cup of tea. I am not surprised at what she’s doing, but it’s not what first ladies usually do.”

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