The incredible shrinking first lady 

First lady Michelle Obama's encounter with a 7-year-old worried about her mother's immigration status was tellingly both awkward and deft.

More accustomed to questions from second-graders about whether the family dog, Bo, likes pizza, Obama stumbled a little before telling the girl the president is working on immigration reform.

"Everybody's got to work together in Congress to make sure that happens," she said brightly.

The odd exchange was of a piece with that day's agenda, in which Obama took Mexican first lady Margarita Zavala to New Hampshire Estates Elementary, where the two women skipped around with children and talked about exercise and nutrition.

Zavala could be forgiven if she found the event incongruous with the first ladies' backgrounds. A former member of the Mexican legislature, Zavala is president of an advisory board for a family development agency in her husband's administration.

Obama, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, was a corporate lawyer and later an executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

But since becoming first lady, Obama has embraced a milder public role where she is most often quoted about clothes, fitness and family. Beyond her modest issues agenda, the first lady has no public policy voice in President Obama's administration.

It's a station the once hard-charging Obama carved out for herself, but appears to find somewhat restrictive. At the same time, the soft-focus image has also made her a popular figure in the Obama administration.


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The first lady role has transformed over the centuries from functioning primarily as party-giver, toward a more modern interpretation embracing issues and pet causes.
Dolley Payne Todd Madison: Known as a gracious hostess, Madison was forced to evacuate the White House by the British army during the War of 1812 and returned to find the structure in ruins. The White House Web site notes the "undaunted" first lady continued to entertain, in temporary quarters.
Lucy Ware Webb Hayes: "Lemonade Lucy" was for temperance and never served alcohol in the White House. She was beloved for her good works visiting school, prisons and asylums with her husband, President Rutherford B. Hayes
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt: Considered a transformational first lady, Roosevelt held her own press conferences, gave lectures and wrote a newspaper column. Among her key missions was the promotion of human rights.
Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy: The iconic former first lady leveraged her expertise and interest in the arts into a study and eventual renovation of the White House, and many of the pieces she chose remain in service today.
Elizabeth Bloomer Ford: An outspoken supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, "Betty" Ford put her stamp on the first lady's job by, among other things, speaking openly of her political views, her surgery for breast cancer and her battle with drugs and alcohol.
Nancy Davis Reagan: The former actress used the White House as a backdrop for spectacular, celebrity-filled parties and arts events. On the policy side, she is credited with promoting the "just say no to drugs" campaign, among other causes.
Laura Welch Bush: A former school librarian, Laura Bush made literacy a key project during her eight years in office. She also promoted women's heart health and worked to restore libraries in schools damaged and destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.


"If you are a woman in politics one of your greatest frustrations is the tendency of everyone to look at how you are dressed and your physical appearance as opposed to the substance of what you are talking about," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.

But while many first ladies -- most recently, Laura Bush -- built on and expanded their roles as first lady, Michelle Obama appears at times to be shrinking.

So far this year she has made no political appearances and is not expected to hit the fundraising circuit for Democratic candidates.

Instead, Obama has carved out a safe issues agenda, focusing on military families, childhood obesity and nutrition -- notably through her advocacy of gardening and farmers markets.

"She is doing things that are important but fairly safe, from an issues perspective," MacManus said. "Right now, with her husband not doing as well in the polls, there needs to be a positive member of the team."

The job of first lady can be thankless. In a city populated by powerful, professional women, the first lady role is still an anachronism, its occupant expected to be a flawless hostess, a caring mother, and subdued, dutiful wife.

Hillary Clinton, who tried taking on a policy role in her husband's administration, spent years battling back from the backlash her efforts engendered.

Even with women comprising 47 percent of the nation's work force, the notion of a first lady working in a job outside of the White House remains largely unthinkable.

Betty Ford, whose battle with drug and alcohol addiction and frank discussion of her breast cancer treatment helped modernize how the first lady is perceived, said of those who went before her, "Now that I realize what they've had to put up with, I have a new respect and admiration for every one of them."

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Julie Mason

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