FLOTUS 2.0: Michelle Obama’s second term

First Lady Michelle Obama delivers opening remarks during a workshop for high school students with the cast and crew of the film "Beast of the Southern Wild,...
First Lady Michelle Obama delivers opening remarks during a workshop for high school students with the cast and crew of the film "Beast of the Southern Wild,...
Sipa via AP Images

Michelle Obama is back.

The first lady is making a big splash in the second term. She got a new haircut (hello, bangs), graced the cover of Vogue, and now she’s got a new book about gardening. And she seems to be having fun while doing it. Her “Evolution of Mom Dancing” video with comedian Jimmy Fallon has nearly 16 million hits on YouTube. It seems safe to say footage of her freeze dancing with students at a D.C. elementary school this week will eventually follow suit.

“She’s certainly much more comfortable than she was” now that she has more White House years under her belt, said Dr. Myra Gutin, an expert on first ladies at Rider University. “She’s just so much more outgoing, warm and engaged.”

The 49-year-old hasn’t abandoned the issues of childhood obesity or benefits for military families–goals of her first term. But she’s added more to her plate.

In April, the first lady made an emotional plea for gun control–taking a rare step into a legislative battle her husband was fighting after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Two months before, she attended the funeral of Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot to death in a park not far from the Obama’s house in the Windy City.

“As I visited with the Pendleton family at Hadiya’s funeral, I couldn’t get over how familiar they felt to me, because what I realized was Hadiya’s family was just like my family,” said Obama. “Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her. But I got to grow up and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School and have a career and a family, and the most blessed life I could ever imagine. And Hadiya—well, we know that story.” Gun reforms her husband was fighting for “deserve a vote,” she said then.

This week, the first lady began campaigning for Rep. Ed Markey, the Democratic nominee for the special U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts. “My husband can’t do it alone,” she said. “He absolutely needs folks like Ed Markey in the Senate to make it happen.”And at an LGBT gala and Democratic National Committee fundraiser in New York City on Wednesday, Obama praised her husband’s record on LGBT rights and urged the audience to stay engaged politically. “It’s easy to get frustrated and to become cynical,” she said. “But make no mistake about it, while we are tuning out, let me tell you, other folks are tuning in…And we are seeing the effects of that kind of imbalance every single day in Washington.” As evidence, she cited Congress’s recent failure to pass gun safety legislation.
Now that the 2012 election is behind the Obamas, much of the pressure is off and “a lot of the focus is on legacy,” said Dr. Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University who specializes in first ladies. “There’s more motivation [for Michelle Obama] to wade into more political waters.”But it’s not as if she has a complete open mic. “She’s still careful about the political issues that she will speak out in behalf of,” said Jellison, adding that the roster of political subjects Obama speaks on could expand after the midterm elections. That could include more on gun control and even on gender–especially if Hillary Clinton decides to run for president in 2016. Then there’s the issue of race, which the first lady has largely shied away from. Jellison said Obama might take a more prominent role in shoring up the black vote for the next Democratic presidential nominee.

If history is any guide, we ought to expect FLOTUS to keep talking.

After Lyndon Johnson’s won in 1964, his wife, Lady Bird, was extremely vocal on parts of the Great Society program, touting Head Start and environmental issues. Lady Bird saw the overwhelming win as “her own mandate that she could go out” and speak on issues she cared about, said Jellison.

After George W. Bush secured another term, his wife Laura also spoke out more on politics, pitching for better treatment of Afghan women, urging the release of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and playing a greater role in fundraising for GOP candidates.

What’s certain is Obama will continue to make children a central part of her second term agenda. Earlier this year, while on a three-city tour touting her anti-obesity “Let’s Move” program, she told reporters: “Kids need to be engaged, not just intellectually. They need more than just to do well on test scores. They need to have something else in life to look forward to,” like art, singing, dancing and participating in sports.

Gutin said it’s likely the first lady will play it safe as the next four years play out. “She doesn’t want to make herself the news cycle by saying something that will require her husband to use his political capital to clean it up,” she said.

Of course, FLOTUS’s new approach isn’t all about politics. Some of it is style. Attention may have shifted from her buff arms to her playful haircut. But more significant is that she’s found a look that’s comfortable and her own.

“If anything, she has taught us the role of first lady doesn’t mean you have to leave your sense of contemporary life at the door when you get into the White House,” said Robin Givhan, a style and culture critic for The Daily Beast and Newsweek–and former fashion editor of the Washington Post, where she covered Obama.

Like other first ladies, Obama has “come into her own in terms of her public style,” Givhan said. Clinton adopted her pantsuit look during her husband’s second term. And Laura Bush turned to higher-end labels.

“With Mrs. Obama, she most definitely looks more polished and camera-ready than she did four years ago… Four years ago, she tended to wear a lot of variety of labels. Now she has found some favorites. To me that says she has sort of honed in on a sensibility that speaks to her. That sensibility says a great deal what a powerful and assured woman can look like in our culture right now,” said Givhan.

FLOTUS 2.0: Michelle Obama's second term