WASHINGTON — The 21 women nervously mingling at the White House were among the best in their fields.
They had achieved Olympic gold, Grammy awards and four stars in the Army. One had orbited the earth aboard space shuttle Endeavour. Some had reached the highest outposts of corporate America, or had earned kudos on stage or on the big screen.
They were together for one reason: Michelle Obama.
As a candidate’s wife, as it became increasingly clear Barack Obama might win the presidency, she had dreamed about a day like this, when she could bring together such a talented group and send them off to give pep talks to kids in the public schools.
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As first lady, she realized she could make it happen.
“I couldn’t have imagined this a year ago,” Mrs. Obama said, alluding to the darker days of the campaign. She was speaking one morning last month to the other high achievers she had invited to the blue-and-yellow Diplomatic Reception Room in the basement of the White House.
Something else seemed unimaginable a year ago, too.
Who would ever have thought that Michelle Obama would be transformed from a potential campaign liability into America’s newest sweetheart and No. 1 cover girl, every bit as popular as her husband.
Michelle’s 100 days
Michelle Obama’s first 100 days in the White House really began more than 365 days ago in Wisconsin.
Rallying an audience in Milwaukee, she said: “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country.” She explained that she was proud of the people who’d gotten involved in politics, but that’s not what her critics heard.
They said the comment proved she hated America. They portrayed her as the stereotypical angry black woman. Fox News Channel talked of the “terrorist fist jab” she and her husband shared the night he clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. The New Yorker, making fun of the people making fun of her, sketched Mrs. Obama on its cover in an afro and militant garb.
It was a dark time in the many months she had spent campaigning. Yet it was a teachable moment, too.
Mrs. Obama learned from her mistake.
And in the months since, she has gone from lightning rod to rock star, from the cover of the New Yorker to the cover of Vogue, from just plain fashionable to worldwide fashion icon.
She is popular as the president, maybe more. Depending on the poll, she has approval ratings in the 60s and 70s. Practically the only issue being debated these days, silly as it seems, is whether she goes sleeveless too much and for the wrong occasions.
It’s not unusual for a first lady to be more popular than the president, but that usually happens further along. That it has happened so quickly for Mrs. Obama says a lot about how perceptions of her have changed.
“If you had told me a year ago that she would attain this kind of popularity I would have said, ‘No way,”’ said professor Myra Gutin, who studies first ladies at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. “She’s really reversed things in a way that no one would ever have expected.”
‘Mom in chief’
Maybe it’s the three F’s: family, food and fashion. And a queen.
Americans mostly see their first ladies as wives and mothers, so how could anyone object whenever Mrs. Obama said she wanted to be “mom in chief” to her 10- and 7-year-old daughters, Malia and Sasha.
She worried openly about moving them to the White House. Getting them settled was her top priority.
The public now sees she meant what she said.
The girls got an elaborate swing set, right outside dad’s Oval Office window. A new garden on the South Lawn will supply them with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. The promised puppy, a Portuguese water dog named Bo, recently arrived. Mrs. Obama also returned early from her husband’s first European trip to be home when the girls started a new school week.
In the eyes of many people, the image of an angry woman was transformed into one of a happy, doting mother.