Michelle Obama's Hidden Power

Whether she’s the second coming of Jackie Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt or even Dolley Madison, Michelle Obama will be a transforming First Lady—and vital to her husband’s success. Kati Marton examines the state of their union.

01.17.09 7:05 AM ET

Michelle Obama, who turns 45 years old today, will be a transforming First Lady. Her astonishing personal narrative is already part of our history; the first African-American to fill an iconic role shaped by women like Dolley Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. That in itself is obviously of enormous historic significance. But there is more. Unlike her husband, Michelle Robinson Obama is the product of the urban black experience. To underscore that fact she has sometimes referred to her husband as a “brother” in interviews. We are no longer in Midland, Texas, anymore, but on Chicago’s South Side, a working-class neighborhood that went from being white to black during the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. Unusually for a First Lady, Michelle is from a blue-collar background: Her father, Fraser Robinson, worked for the city, tending boilers at a water-treatment plant. But from those modest beginnings, Michelle catapulted to the (formerly) whitest and Waspiest of Ivy League schools, Princeton, followed by Harvard Law. Only Hillary Rodham Clinton among First Ladies has been this well-educated. And, like Hillary, Michelle is focused and at times driven—while being a serious, full-time mother. Too impatient for the tedium of corporate lawyering at Chicago’s Sidley and Austin, Michelle left after just three years, bent on making an impact on the world. Now she will.

Nobody will consider it surrender if Michelle Obama spends more time caring for her children than making policy. On the contrary, she will be admired for it.

Ironically perhaps, because the new First Lady has already distinguished herself professionally, she will be free to play any role she chooses in the White House, including a very traditional one. Hillary Rodham Clinton, one generation older, did not have that freedom. “In some ways Hillary was a victim of feminism,” George Stephanopoulos told me, “If she did it the traditional First Lady way, it would be [deemed] a surrender. Whereas if she had an office in the West Wing, and her own policies, it was not derivative; she was being recognized in her own right.” Nobody, on the other hand, will consider it surrender if Michelle Obama spends more time caring for her children than making policy. On the contrary, she will be admired for it. It is inconceivable, however, that a woman as bright and focused as Michelle Obama will not find specific causes and issues to advocate from the First Lady’s bully pulpit. She would, for example, make an extraordinary occasional envoy to Third World women at a time when our nation desperately needs an image makeover, and she has already showed great interest in helping military families.

What is certain is that the White House will transform her, as it has all previous occupants. History will bear down on her as it did on Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Who could have predicted that Mrs. Kennedy, the ethereal post-debutante, would pen an eloquent letter as the nation’s first widow to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, urging him to pursue the détente begun under her husband’s presidency? Like Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Obama will cross corridors where Eleanor Roosevelt once walked. She will be swept up by the power of 200 years of myths and memories—in unpredictable ways. I have a feeling she will not squander the opportunity offered by her platform. She will realize that being First Lady is not a job, but the opportunity of a lifetime. There is no role in the world like the one she is about to play.

Does Laura Bush now regret not having seized her moment? Mrs. Bush had a chance to play a historic part during a time of national crisis following the 9/11 attacks, when the nation looked to the White House for leadership. Laura Bush did not summon us to greatness any more than her husband did. He told us to shop and she urged us to read to our children. Yet she might have softened the Bush Administration’s pugnacious global image, had she chosen to do so. Day trips to Afghanistan are no substitute for sustained engagement. With the notable exception of some public events to fight AIDS and malaria (and a strangely atonal involvement in Burma), Mrs. Bush was never clearly defined. My two-word advice to Mrs. Obama in how navigate through crisis is, “Study Eleanor.”

But the First Lady’s most vital role is internal, not external. We need the First Lady to keep the commander in chief steady, happy, honest, and clear-eyed about what the rest of us are thinking, in a way none of his underlings can. And the First Lady’s bubble is not quite as airtight as the president’s. I think we will be well-served by a marriage that seems as close, as open, and as much fun as the Obamas’.

No man needs a strong, fearless, intelligent wife more than the American president, sheltered and cocooned in what Harry Truman called “the Great White Prison.” Those presidents with brave spouses, willing to speak sometimes hard truths to a man most everyone fears, have a distinct advantage. Had Pat Nixon, for example, been able to cut through her husband’s paranoia, Watergate might have been avoided. But Pat had long since given up on Dick. By the time they reached the White House, they were leading separate lives. “I don’t give my husband advice, “ Mrs. Nixon said, “because he doesn’t need it.” How sad: Is there anyone alive who doesn’t need advice from the person who knows him or her best? Lady Bird Johnson, a First Lady for whom I have great admiration, with her combination of grit and compassion got through to LBJ and steadied him during the greatest crisis of the Johnson presidency, the escalating war in Vietnam. “Everybody else has let me down,” LBJ once told a friend, “except Lady Bird.”

There are many other examples of the way presidential spouses have acted in a role that is mostly hidden from public view: beyond decorating and planning state dinners, substantively. Nancy Reagan, another First Lady whom I learned to admire in my research of the Reagan years and from my interview with her, was a far more serious player in the Reagan White House than her popular image as a fashion-obsessed, astrology-consulting, royalty-loving lady who lunched. She was all those things, but so much more. She enabled her Ronnie to function at maximum capacity, virtually acting as his chief of staff and making sure he had the "right” people in his circle. When his mental powers began to slip, she doubled her vigilance and brought him back from the brink of depression caused by the messy business of Iran-Contra. (Oliver North slipped into the Oval Office when Reagan’s new chief of staff, Don Regan, foolishly sidelined Nancy. Regan simply didn’t realize how vital Nancy’s presence and input was to the Boss.)

For the most part, (a spectacular exception being the jealous and judgmental Edith Galt Wilson, who took charge of Woodrow Wilson’s presidential duties during her husband’s illness) marriages have played a largely constructive role in the presidency. Given the almost monarchial nature of the office (the First Couple lives and works in the same place, and are surrounded by a “court” of counselors and advisors and mind-boggling security) even distant couples are drawn together in the White House. “If you weren’t close before, “ Lady Bird once told me, “you better get close now.” Jackie Kennedy echoed that when she said, “In the White House, the only two people you really have are each other.”

So, unlike with celebrity marriages—fun to gossip about, but of zero consequence—the state of the First Couple’s union is a matter of national interest. By every measure, the Obamas seem to have a strong bond. In all their interviews the president-elect glows with pride in his wife, and seems to get such a kick out of her. She teases him in public and gets away with it, a sure sign of a healthy marriage. The word fun keeps cropping up as I write this. I’m not underestimating the history-making aspect of Michelle Obama as our First Lady. But when was the last time we had fun observing a First Family? Observing the Obama girls will give us much more pleasure than worrying about the Bush twins’ nights out in Georgetown, or Chelsea Clinton’s need for privacy. Our new First Lady seems to have a natural sense of play—even in her wardrobe choices; no more safe little suits!—which we first saw in that now famous “terrorist" fist bump. This couple seems to genuinely enjoy each other’s company, teasing each other, flirting with each other, reminding the rest of us that this is what a healthy union looks like. He lets her gently knock the stuffing out of him. This is as important a contribution as any First Lady can make for the national welfare.

I strongly suspect that Michelle Obama, with her already astonishing personal history, will grab the brass ring of the presidency, enjoy the ride and join the pantheon of history-making First Ladies. Those of us lucky enough to share this transformational moment in our nation’s life will be the ultimate beneficiaries. And so, with high hopes and great expectations, I have but one plea for our new First Lady: On behalf of all of us, please keep our president grounded and human. That is one job only Michelle Obama can fill.

Kati Marton is an author and journalist who has reported for ABC News, National Public Radio as well as a number of print outlets. She received several honors for her reporting, including the George Foster Peabody Award. She is the author of The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World and Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History.