A First Lady Who Demands Substance
Michelle Obama Wants to Be Part of Events That Have Purpose And a Message — and That Parallel the President’s Agenda.
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009
For weeks, Michelle Obama had been telling her staff and closest confidantes that she wasn’t having the impact she wanted. She is a woman of substance, with a background in law, public policy and management, who found herself relegated to role model in chief. The West Wing of the White House — the fulcrum of power and policy — had not fully integrated her into its agenda. She wanted more.
So, earlier this month, she changed her chief of staff, and now she’s changing her role.
Her new chief of staff, Susan Sher, 61, is a close friend and former boss who the first lady thinks will be more forceful about getting her and her team on the West Wing’s radar screen. The first thing Sher said she told senior adviser David Axelrod, whom she has known for years: When I call, “you need to get back to me right away.”
The former chief of staff, Jackie Norris, 37, was “not on the first lady’s wavelength,” said one source, echoing others, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. “Susan is more of a peer,” a senior White House official said. “I think that’s probably a better model.”
Although Obama’s job-approval ratings have soared, the first lady — a Harvard-educated lawyer — wasn’t satisfied with coasting. She is hiring a full-time speechwriter and has instructed her staff to think “strategically” so that every event has a purpose and a message. She doesn’t want to simply go to events and hug struggling military families, she said; she wants to show progress. “Her desire is to step out more and have deliverables,” said communications chief Camille Johnston. “It’s about things that are coming up that we want to be a part of: child nutrition reauthorization act, prevention and wellness for health-care reform.”
In the past couple of weeks, Obama has been more vocal about the specifics of the president’s health plan, and she will play a substantive role in promoting it. She will soon announce the creation of an advisory board to help military families. And she will be the face of the administration’s United We Serve, a summer-long national service program, which she launched on Monday. Even her social events have a message: She let congressional families know that before the annual White House barbecue today, the 500 guests are expected to show up at Fort McNair to stuff camp backpacks with goodies for the children of military personnel.
Obama has also taken stock of her family life, which she has found to be more constrained than she expected. She has concluded that there’s really only one road toward some semblance of a private life for them — and it leads away from the White House.
Laying Out Her Strategy
On Jan. 14, days before the inauguration, Obama assembled her new staff in a conference room at transition headquarters for a two-hour lunch meeting. In the room was a mix of loyal campaign aides, good friends she had persuaded to leave high-paying corporate jobs, and political professionals who were virtual strangers to her. It was the first time many of the 20 or so aides had met, and the incoming first lady said she expected them to operate “at 120 percent.” All eyes were on them, she cautioned, and there was little room for error.
She emphasized that they must work on a parallel track with the president’s office to avoid the historical East Wing-West Wing tensions that have plagued most administrations. “Seamless” was the word she used to describe the partnership she expected with her husband’s staff.
Last, she exhorted her staff to find a personal balance. For her part, Obama informed them that she would practice what she preached: She did not intend to work more than 2 1/2 days a week. She was also planning to take off the month of August.
Unspoken but well known to some in the room was how unhappy Obama had been with the lack of campaign support she received during the presidential primaries. The president’s advisers acknowledge that Michelle Obama was ill-served in the early days of the 2008 campaign, when opponents were able to portray her as unpatriotic, haughty and a caricature of an angry black woman. She was horrified to learn that she had become a liability to the candidate for saying that for the first time in her life, she was proud of her country.
“Obviously, given how fundamentally distorted the public lens was on her, I think we could have done a much better job for her. . . . I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Axelrod concedes. “It took her a while to dig out of that.”
It was against this background that the first lady and her staff were determined to create in the White House a culture that was, as Norris put it, “authentic” to the first lady. Since the election, her disciplined (journalists might say controlling) staff has carefully managed her media exposure and methodically laid the groundwork for her issues, a “soft launch,” as one aide said. And the first lady’s approval ratings flew into the 80s, exceeding her husband’s, and higher than any other first lady’s at a comparable time.
Norris had been Obama’s Iowa state coordinator and had become close to Michelle Obama during the campaign. But Norris said in an interview that she came to agree that she wasn’t a good fit for this job — which requires not only management and policy skills but also inevitably touches on the first lady’s personal and family life.
One early miscalculation on Norris’s part was that she tried to take on Desiree Rogers, a close friend of the first lady, insisting that the social secretary report to her. The disagreement culminated in what one White House aide described as a “blowup.” Valerie Jarrett, aide to the president and a friend of both women, had to step in and smooth over a conflict that many thought should never have been engaged. “We brought in people with strong personalities and passions,” Norris said. “Disagreements are inevitable.”
Jarrett — a Chicago friend who is helping develop the first lady’s official role — said Michelle Obama’s immense popularity has forced a rethinking of how she fits into the policy calculus. “We spend time thinking that through and where is she going to have the biggest impact,” Jarrett said.
Axelrod said that initially “we were throwing her out there in the kinds of events that were probably not press-worthy. . . . There was a push for quantity and not quality.”
But he added that the plan had always been to enhance her role around this time, after she had a chance to settle her family. “We are focused now on quality events that are related to her passions,” he said. “We don’t want to use her as a utility player for political chores.”
Sher noted: “The key is you can get schedule-driven as opposed to being strategy-driven. You could spend all your time yes-no, yes-no as opposed to [deciding] what are the things that we really should be working on.”
Sher, a lawyer and manager, has already begun stepping up interaction with the West Wing — particularly with Anita Dunn, the communications director, who had advised Michelle Obama during the campaign. “Anita is paying attention to us over here,” Sher said.
Elements of Chicago
In naming Sher, Obama took another step toward re-creating her Chicago life on a world stage. She has surrounded herself with familiar faces, starting with her mother, who lives in the White House and takes Malia and Sasha to school every day in an unmarked SUV. Obama begins her day at 5:30 a.m. with another Chicago transplant, Cornell McClellan, who has been her and her husband’s personal trainer for 12 years. The family’s meals are largely prepared by Chicagoan Sam Kass, a White House assistant chef, who also oversees the organic garden.
After the move to Washington, Obama sat down with her staff and two calendars: one from the office, one from Sidwell Friends, her daughters’ new school. No events would be scheduled that presented a potential conflict with the girls. But she quickly discovered that her days off don’t allow her any real freedom. When she wore shorts to walk the dog last week in a sheltered spot on the White House lawn, photos showed up on the Internet within hours.
So now, with school over for the year, Obama has developed a plan that takes her and the girls out of Washington, where she thinks they can have more fun and independence. Sasha and Malia accompanied the first lady to San Francisco on Monday, and next month, they will join their parents on an official presidential trip to Russia, Italy and Ghana. The family is expected to spend more time at Camp David, where they can entertain close friends in privacy.
At work, Obama runs her office like a business in which she is chief executive. She doesn’t want to micromanage, she has made clear; she wants to delegate. Up and down the hall are professional women with whom she has a longtime connection and whom she trusts to execute her vision. Rogers, another friend from Chicago, has an office just a few feet away. Also nearby is Jocelyn Frye, whom Obama met at Harvard Law School and who is the first lady’s policy director. A family law advocate and expert on equal opportunity employment law, Frye is also a link to the D.C. community. She grew up in Washington and still lives a few blocks from her parents’ house in the Michigan Park area of Northeast. She has pointed the first lady to homeless shelters, soup kitchens and schools.
Sher, who worked with Michelle Obama in the Chicago mayor’s office and later hired her at the University of Chicago Medical Center, was a reluctant recruit, leaving her husband behind in Chicago.
Sher, Rogers and Jarrett are so close that they have rented apartments in the same Georgetown building, near the waterfront, with Jarrett and Sher directly across the hall from each other. “We’ll even do errands together on the weekend,” Sher said. The first lady attended a small birthday celebration for Rogers last week and has had “girls’ nights” with the women.
They all know that Obama wants to continue to offer opportunities to people like herself. She grew up in working-class South Chicago, in the shadow of one of the most elite private colleges in the country, the University of Chicago. Yet Obama recalls vividly that when she was a high school student hoping to rise above her circumstances, the university seemed far beyond her reach. She was determined this would not happen at the White House on her watch.
“No one there had ever reached out to say, ‘Hey, maybe there’s a place for you here,’ ” Johnston said. Obama has either visited or invited to the White House students from 30 Washington schools, and she was instrumental in developing the first White House summer internship program specifically for D.C. high school students. She brought high school girls to the White House to rub elbows with such female icons as singer Alicia Keys and astronaut Mae Jemison. Some of the girls were so nervous, they were sobbing before they went inside. “Michelle hugged each and every girl before they left,” Jarrett said. “We talked about that night a lot, and she was really quite struck by her ability to really leave a lasting, positive impression as a role model.”
Social as Political
Though Obama doesn’t have much freedom outside the White House, she has already shaken up the status quo in her new home, including turning the White House fountains green on St. Patrick’s Day and holding the first Seder hosted by a president. She also intentionally served a formal dinner to the nation’s governors on mismatched china — 28 years after Nancy Reagan famously complained because nothing matched and proceeded to spend $200,000 on a new set of Lenox.
One of the first people let in on Obama’s vision was the woman charged with executing the cultural and social message for the White House: Rogers, 50, the first African American social secretary. The stuffy world of protocol has never seen the likes of Rogers, a glamorous Harvard MBA and former corporate executive, who unabashedly posed in $100,000 earrings for a magazine photo shoot — much to the amusement of her boosters in the East Wing, and the anxiety of the president’s advisers. Axelrod, a longtime friend, let it be known that he was agitated by the WSJ magazine profile in which she wore the earrings and talked about the “Obama brand.”
Obama tasked Rogers with ensuring that every social event has a populist component, as she did last week when Duke Ellington High School students attended workshops with jazz greats. Rogers said that the Obamas want to convey that coming to the White House is “just a home visit.” That’s why, she said, the first lady hugs so many people who walk through the doors. “You try to take the fear out of just the mere awe of walking through the gates.”
The Obamas are in no rush to schedule a state dinner for a foreign head of state, Rogers said. At the president’s request, the first lady is planning a series of intimate “salon dinners.” Rogers said she had provided the Obamas with a list of about 1,000 arts, business and science names and several suggested guest lists. “The opportunity to have 10 people that you’re interested in and hear what they have to say about something,” she said. “How fabulous!”
Every morning, Rogers and Sher attend White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s 8:15 staff meeting. Johnston, a newcomer to Obama’s circle but a White House veteran, and Katie McCormick Lelyveld, the first lady’s press secretary, sit in on White House press secretary Robert Gibbs’s daily message meeting. As part of the president’s domestic policy team, Frye meets with its staff weekly. Senior aides David Medina and Trooper Sanders work on national service and international issues, and Norris remains close to the office in her new job at the Corporation for National and Community Service.
They’re all focused on raising the stakes. “It isn’t just about hugging,” Sher said. “Whatever she talks about will bring press and interest, but it’s important that she’s not just talking [but] actually moving forward on those issues.”