Michelle Obama turns 50

By Drum Digital
17 January 2014

Michelle Obama turns 50 on Friday as one of America's most respected women.

But the popular first lady has yet to break free of the confines of one of the toughest jobs in politics.

The former Michelle Robinson did not take to politics quickly in the shadow of her high-wattage husband and was even a liability early on in his 2008 campaign.

But she has evolved into a polished performer and -- at key moments in the president's re-election bid -- breathed new life into his political persona when he seemed weary and uninspired.

"She started very slowly in office, and (has) kind of built into the role. With every passing year she seems more comfortable," said Robert Watson, a professor of American studies at Lynn University in Florida.

Obama enhanced her initial role as "Mom in Chief" to become the figurehead of a number of important issues, including veterans' benefits.

While there are no official duties or a role under the Constitution, the job of first lady is a symbolic, politically sensitive one in which it is easier to stumble than soar.

Obama, married for 21 years and with two daughters, Malia, 15 and Sasha, 12, is a history maker in her own right as the first African American first lady.

"The First Lady is unpaid, unelected and unappointed; therefore, it's not even a job per se," said Watson, author of several books on first ladies.

"It's difficult because there are no statutory parameters which say what the first lady can and cannot do.

"That's good and bad. It's good because she can try to find her way, but everything she does, she's open to criticism one way or another."

The job has become even more complicated in the modern age, and seems ill-suited for modern professional women and working mothers who may struggle to settle into a subordinate role to an all-powerful husband.

Hillary Clinton, for example, found herself in political crossfire when she tried to reinvent the role and take on a policy platform in the 1990s.

Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said every woman that comes to the role of first lady is challenged by fitting it to their own personality.

"There are certain assumptions with the role, first of all being an asset, not a liability," Mandel said.

The first lady is simultaneously a hostess for state occasions and the glue in a wholesome family image modern presidents seek to project.

Such roles may not have come naturally to Obama, a high achiever with degrees from Princeton and Harvard Universities after a modest upbringing in Chicago.

While her husband pursued a low-paid career in Illinois politics before climbing the national stage, Michelle Obama was the family's main breadwinner as the vice president of a Chicago hospital.

She put her career on hold when her husband set his sights on the White House in 2007.

The super-fit Michelle, often spotted dancing with kids in public appearances or setting an example of exercise from her "Let's Move" fitness campaign, has been a bundle of energy as first lady.

She has also become a fashion icon, with her casual gear and gowns for state dinners setting trends -- and boosting sometimes little-known American designers.

She has adopted social causes closest to her heart, including the struggle against childhood obesity and support for military families.

Both issues, Watson noted, fit her husband's political priorities --health care reform, and bringing troops home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a new venture she plans to highlight Thursday, Mrs Obama will seek to widen access to a college education.

All this has helped the first lady's popularity to hit 65 percent -- a good 20 points higher than her husband.

Michelle Obama, fresh from a few days with close girl friends in Hawaii, is expected to celebrate her half-century with a party at the White House on Saturday.

She is approaching her milestone with serenity.

"Each decade just brings a greater sense of calm and certainty and maturity and confidence ... there's just no way you have that when you are 20," Obama told People Magazine in an interview.

Obama, who says she is now working yoga into her fitness routine for flexibility, also caused a stir by saying that she would not definitely rule out cosmetic surgery.

"I've also learned to never say never," she said.

If there is any criticism of Michelle Obama these days, it is that she may not have stretched the role of first lady, as one might have expected from such a pioneering woman.

"I don't feel like she's broken the mold in being a first lady," said Liza Mundy, author of the book "Michelle."

Mundy said the first lady had not strayed too far into politics, past her signature issues.

"We're moving into an era of sort of a branded presidency. There's an Obama brand, and she's a representative of the Obama brand."

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