DARLENE SUPERVILLE | AP
Published — Saturday 26 January 2013
Last update 28 January 2013 5:37 pm
WASHINGTON: Michelle Obama has a new look, both in person and online, and with her husband’s re-election as president, she has four more years as the first lady, too.
So what will she do with them?
Take on a new cause? Travel more? Trace the path of another first lady and keep the Obama political brand alive by running for office?
The 49-year-old first lady is trying to figure out what comes next for this self-described “mom-in-chief” who also is a champion of healthier eating, an advocate for military families, a fitness buff and the best-selling author of a book about her White House garden.
For certain, she’ll press ahead with her well-publicized efforts to reduce childhood obesity and rally the country around its military service members.
“But beyond that, the first lady is exploring ways that she can make a real difference for Americans, not just for these next four years, but for years to come,” said Kristina Schake, Mrs. Obama’s communications director.
Here are five areas to watch.
Will she take on a new cause?
When Parade magazine asked last year whether she’d take up any new issues, Mrs. Obama identified women’s health issues. “How do we strengthen families and make them healthier, an issue not just in America but around the world?” she said.
Her marquee causes — the “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity and the “Joining Forces” effort to help military families — took a back seat last fall as she campaigned doggedly for President Barack Obama’s re-election.
Look for her to begin publicizing those efforts anew.
Do not expect to see Mrs. Obama push more contentious issues such as gun control or immigration, both second-term priorities for the president. Her public approval rating was 73 percent in a December poll by CNN and she’d like to keep it there.
Some feminists remain unhappy that the Ivy League-educated lawyer hasn’t used her position to champion what they view as more substantive issues.
Robert Watson, an American studies professor at Lynn University, said he hopes Mrs. Obama will use her popularity to pivot away from the “velvet-glove” issues first ladies typically embrace and say “I’m swinging for the fence.”
MALIA AND SASHA
Obama’s daughters are older now — Malia is a teenager of 14; sister Sasha is 11. Both the president and the first lady sometimes talk about the girls’ busy lives and how they don’t want to spend so much time with their parents anymore.
Could having older, more independent children free Mrs. Obama to pursue other interests? Some observers say that’s unlikely, since the teenage years are often full of angst about topics like dating, learning how to drive or going to college.
“Michelle has made such a public statement about being the ‘mom-in-chief’ that it’s hard to see her saying, ‘Go ahead girls, here’s the limo,’” Watson said.
Malia will graduate from high school in 2016 during Obama’s final year in office and will probably trade the White House for a college dorm. To do that, she and her parents will have to navigate the byzantine US college application process. Sasha will be in high school, which has plenty of its own issues and drama.
Presidents and first ladies often step up the pace of international travel in the second term. But it seems unlikely that Obama could make such a pivot just yet, with the US public still so concerned about the economy, unemployment and government spending.
One option would be to send Mrs. Obama abroad in his place.
The first lady is popular overseas and has been well-received in India, Mexico and Britain. She also visited South Africa and Botswana in 2011, the only countries she has seen alone as first lady.
She and Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, traveled together to Haiti after the massive earthquake there in January 2010.
Mrs. Obama also went to Spain in the summer of 2010 on a personal trip with friends and daughter Sasha, but her stay at a luxury resort on the Costa del Sol wasn’t well-received back home.
Former first lady Laura Bush pursued a grueling foreign travel schedule during her husband George W. Bush’s second term. She visited 77 countries in eight years as first lady, including with the president, but 67 of those trips came during her husband’s second term, including solo stops in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, according to Anita McBride, her chief of staff at the time.
Hillary Rodham Clinton also traveled abroad extensively during Bill Clinton’s second term in office.
RUN FOR PUBLIC OFFICE
Will she run or won’t she? Despite Mrs. Obama’s many denials about seeking elected office herself, the question keeps getting asked. A recent survey found her to be more popular than Mark Kirk, the Republican senator from her home state of Illinois, in a hypothetical matchup.
“I have no interest in politics. Never have, never will,” the first lady said last year on ABC’s “The View.”
But even those who say “never” can later change their minds.
Hillary Clinton gave the same answer in 1995, says Myra Gutin, who studies first ladies at Rider University. But five years later, as her husband’s presidency was ending, Clinton campaigned and won a Senate seat from New York.
Clinton lost the 2008 presidential Democratic nomination to Barack Obama but then became his secretary of state. She is departing soon from that job amid feverish speculation that she will run for president in 2016.
Look for the first lady to continue to be a fashion trendsetter. Everything from her hair to her clothes is scrutinized, with some fashions selling out quickly after she’s seen wearing them.
Her new bangs became the talk of Washington. Even the president said his wife’s haircut was “the most significant event” of his inaugural weekend.
Mrs. Obama also won largely positive reviews for her inaugural wardrobe: Reed Krakoff and Thom Browne by day, and Michael Kors and Jason Wu by night. Wu designed her red chiffon-and-velvet ball gown for the inauguration — and also designed the white ball gown she wore four years ago.
She also has a new presence on Twitter — @flotus.