Michelle Obama redefines role of the first lady

By Monique Jones

The Birmingham Times

First lady Michelle Obama, right, greets children of military families in the East Room of the White House during a preview of the 2016 holiday decor (Andrew Harnik, Associated Press)
First lady Michelle Obama, right, greets children of military families in the East Room of the White House during a preview of the 2016 holiday decor (Andrew Harnik, Associated Press)

Michelle Obama redefined the role of the first lady.

“I see Michelle Obama as someone who’s inspiring, someone who has set the bar really high,” said Jefferson County District Court Judge Shera Craig Grant. “Someone who is a consummate professional and is so inspiring to women all around the world … she’s not just defined by being the First Lady.”

“One would be hard-pressed to say she has not had a positive impact on girls of all races,” said attorney Doug Jones of Jones & Hawley P.C. and former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. “I think girls everywhere should look up to her and say, ‘We can be there. We can do that.’ I think at the end of the day, that’s what you want [in a role model], and she certainly has provided that to young girls in this country.”

First Lady Obama’s impact on education, health, public service, and numerous other areas has been felt across the nation.

“She’s done a marvelous job of highlighting a variety of issues, and she’s done so with an impressive level of class,” said Larry Powell, a University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) communications professor who is also an expert on polling, political communications, and political ads. “It’s partly because she’s been highly visible on a variety of issues, and she’s done so in such a manner that it looks unselfish. It looks like the issue is more important than she is. That’s a hard thing to pull off.”

On Jan. 20, 2017, President Barack Hussein Obama II will end his second term as 44th President of the United States. And he and his family—wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha—will exit the White House, eight years after Barack made history as the first African-American to hold the nation’s highest office.

The president shaped a legacy during his two terms as president—and the same can be said for Michelle Obama as first lady, according to Birmingham-area residents interviewed this month.

Encouraging Healthy Living

“I think her biggest accomplishment is bringing nutrition to the forefront in underprivileged communities,” Grant said. “So often in underprivileged communities, you don’t see healthy meals, you don’t see good nutrition. But I think her efforts to raise awareness about [nutrition] and to make sure children of every economic status can get nutritious meals no matter what have been big accomplishments.”

Healthy living was a signature component of the first lady’s tenure. Her Let’s Move! Campaign, launched in February 2010, was designed to erase childhood obesity in America by helping youngsters adopt better health habits. Over the course of eight years, Let’s Move! has installed healthier school menus, encouraged children to become more physically active, and created more avenues for families to have cost-effective and healthy food.

The efforts of Let’s Move! led to the bipartisan-backed Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, which has improved the quality of school meals and snacks for more than 50 million students. The legislation also led to the first major revision of the Child and Adult Care Food Program’s nutrition standards in more than 40 years.

Let’s Move! has been successful because it “[makes] it fun for people to learn how to garden, to exercise, to do all those things that are needed,” said Linda Verin, president of political marketing and advertising company Ads That Work!

Fun has been at the center of the campaign through initiatives like Let’s Move! Active Schools, Let’s Move! Child Care, and Let’s Move! Cities, Towns, and Counties—all of which have engaged children and communities in the U.S. in efforts to become more active.

First lady Michelle Obama hugs Janasia Johnson, winner of the 2016 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. (Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press)
First lady Michelle Obama hugs Janasia Johnson, winner of the 2016 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. (Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press)

Focusing on Military Families

Working with military families also has been important for Michelle Obama.

In 2011, she and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, partnered to launch Joining Forces, a group that supports veterans, service members, and their families by providing access to employment opportunities, wellness services, and education programs.

Attorney Jones said, “The things I think about a lot, which have been extremely important over the years, are the initiatives [the first lady] and Dr. Jill Biden have implemented to help military families. They have had a real impact on military families around the world.”

Part of that impact includes helping 60,000 military children prepare for college with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses through a partnership with the National Math and Science Initiative; reducing veteran homelessness by 47 percent between 2010 and 2016; and reducing the unemployment rate of veterans from 9.9 percent in 2011 to 4.3 percent in 2016 through the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act of 2011.

Highlighting Education

In 2014, Obama launched the Reach Higher initiative to inspire younger generations to continue their education beyond high school by participating in professional training programs or attending a community college or four-year college or university.

Reach Higher ties into President Obama’s “North Star” goal, which aims to ensure that by 2020 America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. To help achieve that objective, Reach Higher exposes students to colleges and career opportunities, provides a better understanding of financial aid eligibility, and offers information about academic planning and summer learning opportunities. The initiative also supports high school counselors as they help students enroll in college.

“I believe education is the single-most important civil rights issue that we face today,” said the first lady during a February 2015 Black History Month panel discussion held at the White House. “In the end, if we really want to solve issues like mass incarceration, poverty, racial profiling, voting rights, and the kinds of challenges that shocked so many of us over the past year, then we simply cannot afford to lose out on the potential of even one young person. We cannot allow even one more young person to fall through the cracks.”

Obama’s focus on education continued with the 2015 launch of Let Girls Learn, led by the first lady and president. In many countries, girls face various barriers to finishing school, including forced marriage, lack of financial resources, environmental factors, and cultural attitudes. But girls with education can financially lift their families out of poverty, give back to their communities, and become empowered global citizens.

For the first lady, Let Girls Learn is personal.

“I see myself in these girls,” Obama said in a September 2015 statement. “I see my daughters in these girls, and I simply cannot walk away from them.”

Obama attended Princeton University, where she majored in sociology and minored in African-American studies; she graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1985. She then attended Harvard Law School and received her law degree in 1988. And she began her career at the Chicago-based Sidley & Austin law firm, where she met the future president.

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks while hosting a special screening of the new CNN Film “We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World,” Oct. 11 at the White House. (Molly Riley, Associated Press)
First Lady Michelle Obama speaks while hosting a special screening of the new CNN Film “We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World,” Oct. 11 at the White House. (Molly Riley, Associated Press)

Addressing Race

As the first African-American first lady, Obama has faced criticism that no other spouse in the White House has. Even during her husband’s 2008 campaign, she faced accusations of racism, with one blogger claiming that Obama gave a speech at her church against “whitey.” The first lady refuted the claim, saying in an interview, “You are amazed sometimes at how deep the lies can be. … I mean, ‘whitey’? That’s something George Jefferson would say. Anyone who says that doesn’t know me.”

A 2008 New Yorker magazine cover featured a cartoon of Michelle Obama as an afro-wearing, machine-gun-toting militant stereotype. (President Obama was portrayed in a turban, referencing conservative pundits erroneously linking him to terrorism.) In the cartoon, the Obamas give each other a fist bump, which one television personality called a “terrorist fist jab.”

In 2012, Michelle Obama took exception to a book that portrayed her at odds with both Robert Gibbs, the former presidential press secretary, and Rahm Emanuel, then White House Chief of Staff.

“That’s been an image people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced [his candidacy], that I’m some kind of angry black woman,” the first lady said.

She then further addressed the instances of racism during a 2015 commencement speech at Tuskegee University.

“All of this used to really get to me,” she said. “Back in those days, I had a lot of sleepless nights, worrying about what people thought of me … but eventually I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. I had to ignore all the noise and be true to myself—and the rest would work itself out.”

To better understand where the first lady was coming from, at the 2016 Democratic National Convention she said, “When they go low, we go high.”

Exhibiting Style

While Obama has focused on helping America’s communities, she also has become a style icon, rivaling former First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s influence on fashion. Part of Obama’s signature down-to-earth style has been mixing higher-end items with readily accessible pieces from brands like J. Crew.

Another part of Obama’s signature style is going sleeveless. When she wore a black sleeveless dress for her first official photo as first lady in 2009, reactions included both awe and criticism, with some accusing her of dressing too informal. Nonetheless, throughout her tenure she has stayed true to her style and, much like Kennedy, has made first lady fashion modern, relatable, and fun.

Inspiring Others

Through her leadership, style, and commitment to public service, First Lady Obama has inspired girls across the U.S. to reach higher.

“I could not be more proud of the way she has conducted herself over the past eight years. I think people have grown to appreciate her in her own right, not just because she’s the wife of President Barack Obama,” said Birmingham Mayor William Bell, adding that both the first lady and president have exhibited grace and dignity over the past eight years. “She is an individual who has been a true role model for young ladies of all races.”

“I think she’s a wonderful example, a strong woman who knows right from wrong, a woman who encourages young women, probably especially African-American girls, to believe that they can do anything,” said Verin. “Of course, there’s always talk about her running for president. She said she doesn’t want to, but the fact that people are talking about that shows just how respected she is.”

First Lady Michelle Obama leaves Marine One with her daughters Sasha and Malia. (Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press)
First Lady Michelle Obama leaves Marine One with her daughters Sasha and Malia. (Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press)

Serving as First Mom

Michelle Obama’s greatest role: first mom.

Judge Grant, who, like the first lady, is a working mother, said she has been greatly influenced by Obama’s ability to successfully juggle her professional life alongside her two children.

“She’s done that with such poise,” she said.

UAB’s Powell also believes Obama did a great job handling her professional and personal duties.

“I think she has done a marvelous job of helping to raise two children in the public eye and also serving as the nation’s mother,” Powell said. “She’s been a great role model on the issues she’s wanted to highlight, and she didn’t sacrifice her role as mother to do that.”

Attorney Jones said her leadership was the “perfect complement” to her husband with civil and human rights.

“She has a very strong voice on women’s issues, on gender issues, on racial issues,” he said. “She has been able to establish her own identity as first lady, but I think a very strong and powerful identity. I think people are going to see in the very near future, as the Obamas leave the White House, that First Lady Michelle will be missed.”

The White House, Let’s Move!, Joining Forces, Reach Higher, Let Girls Learn The New York Times, NBC News, The Guardian, and ABC News contributed to this article.