WASHINGTON - Michelle Obama's predecessors have carved outenough different roles as first lady that she is now free tofashion the job in a way that suits her. The first lady will takeher time defining her new role, but already she's dropping clues.
Sit in on Cabinet meetings like Rosalynn Carter? No thanks. Mrs. Obama says she doesn't like "the process stuff."
Pick a pet issue? She's identified a few favorites, includingsupporting military families with a parent far from home.
Her priority? She always will be "mom-in-chief" first.
Protective of her daughters, Mrs. Obama made it clear she wasnot amused when the makers of Beanie Babies released "SweetSasha" and "Marvelous Malia" dolls just after the inauguration.
People who've built careers studying first ladies say it willtake time for Mrs. Obama to settle into hew new role.
Will she try to push the traditional first lady boundaries andhave better luck with it than Hillary Rodham Clinton? Will shestick to tradition, avoid controversy and dive right intodecorating, meal planning and welcoming guests to the White House?Will she try to do it all?
"I would be surprised if first ladies came into office in thefirst week and said, 'This is what I'm going to do,"' said StacyA. Cordery, who teaches history at Monmouth College in Illinois."For the most part, first ladies' platforms evolve. They have toget their footing."
Based on what Mrs. Obama has said, her role is unlikely toevolve fully until she's assured that her 10- and 7-year-olddaughters are comfortably settled in at the White House aftermoving from Chicago, the only other place the girls have evercalled home.
There are other hints about what lies ahead for the first lady:
--She'll continue as one of President Barack Obama's closestadvisers. After all, their relationship began that way some 20years ago when she was a corporate lawyer in Chicago and wasassigned to be his mentor after the firm hired him as a summerintern.
--Her daughters come first. She'll try to keep their lives asnormal as possible, even seeing to it that they make their beds anddo other chores. Mrs. Obama largely has stayed out of the publiceye since the inaugural, helping the girls make themselves at home.But she did hold a reception Thursday in the State Dining Roomhonoring Lilly Ledbetter, an Alabama woman whose name is on anequal-pay bill the president signed into law. On Monday, sheplanned to visit the Education Department and speak briefly to thestaff. Mrs. Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, also moved in to theWhite House and can fill in when duty calls the first lady away.
--Issues she's expressed interest in include helping women jugglecareer and family, and promoting community and national service. Atthe reception for Ledbetter, Mrs. Obama said she'd heard fromworking women all over the country during the campaign about theneed for fair pay, especially "at a time when so many families arefacing economic insecurity and instability." She also did her bestto put her White House guests at ease, telling them: "Feel free,walk around, touch some stuff, just don't break anything."
--She could be eyeing her predecessor as a role model. Mrs. Obamahas talked about how gracious she found Laura Bush to be and said,"I'm taking some cues." Accompanying her husband to the WhiteHouse on Inauguration Day for coffee with the outgoing presidentand first lady, Mrs. Obama arrived with gift box in hand. Insidewas a leather-bound journal and engraved pen for Laura Bush to useto begin writing her memoir.
Americans expect a certain kind of first lady, one who supportsthe president, doesn't steal too much of his spotlight, stays outof trouble, advocates for favored causes and does all the otherthings that come with running a home, such as raising children,being a hostess, planning parties and decorating.
But each first lady puts her own stamp on the position, as Mrs.Obama is sure to do.
She's called her new life "a bit surreal" but also says she'sexcited "because I think there's a lot that can be done with thisplatform."
Hillary Clinton was the first real career woman to become firstlady; she was a practicing lawyer, children's rights advocate andfirst lady of Arkansas when her husband, Bill, was elected. Sheoffended the public during the campaign by saying she wasn't aboutto give up her career to "bake cookies and serve tea."
The Clintons pushed the boundaries in other ways.
Bill Clinton joked during the campaign that the country wouldget two for one if it elected him, speaking about the first lady'slong-assumed role as an informal presidential adviser in a way thatmade the public uncomfortable.
Instead of following tradition and settling in the East Wing,Hillary Clinton raised eyebrows by taking a West Wing office amongher husband's top aides. Laura Bush moved the office back to theEast Wing, and Mrs. Obama is there, too.
Bill Clinton put his wife in charge of trying to overhaul thehealth care system, but the effort failed and damaged their publicimages in the process. Hillary Clinton also was fingered as beinginvolved in various administration scandals. She is the only firstlady to testify before a federal grand jury, and once was burned ineffigy.
"People expect the first ladies to be more traditional thanthey expect the women in their own lives to be," said KristieMiller, an independent historian who has written books about theCoolidge and Wilson first ladies.
If Mrs. Obama, a lawyer who is as accomplished and IvyLeague-educated as Hillary Clinton, at some point decided to takeher new role beyond what's expected of first ladies, she could havean easier time of it because of what Clinton endured.
"Mrs. Clinton opened that door for other first ladies to walkthrough," Cordery said. "She pushed the American comfort levelwith what first ladies could do."
Even Laura Bush, widely viewed as a traditional first lady,broadened the role.
She was the first first lady to record one of the president'sSaturday radio messages. She held a news conference in the WhiteHouse briefing room, rare for a first lady, to accuse Myanmar'smilitary rulers of ineptness after a killer cyclone struck. Theplight of pro-democracy activists in Myanmar, also known as Burma,became one of her causes and she consulted often with the U.N.secretary-general. She also championed the rights of Afghan women.
Mrs. Obama will have to be careful about overstepping becausesome people still have negative impressions of her, Cordery said.Some still regard her as unpatriotic and angry because of hercomment during Obama's campaign about being proud of the U.S. forthe first time in her adult life.
Cordery said Mrs. Obama is smart enough to have paid closeattention to Hillary Clinton's trials and to have reached out foradvice on the do's and don'ts of being first lady. Playing off ofthe recent news that Obama won his fight to keep his belovedBlackBerry, Cordery quipped: "Maybe the first lady's privateBlackBerry will have Mrs. Clinton on it and they will talk."