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OpinionColumnistsAnne Michaud

Melania Trump goes at her own pace

First lady Melania Trump hosts a luncheon March

First lady Melania Trump hosts a luncheon March 8, 2017 in the White House to celebrate International Women's Day. Photo Credit: AP / Pablo Martinez Monsivais

There’s one Trump whose approval ratings are climbing fast, and it’s not the guy in the Oval Office.

First lady Melania Trump has picked up 16 percentage points since before the inauguration, according to a recent poll by CNN/ORC. Fifty-two percent said they have a “favorable” opinion of Trump, even as her husband’s numbers remain mired in the low 40s.

Americans, it seems, are getting to know the former model from Slovenia. The same poll found that 23 percent had “no opinion” of her before President Donald Trump’s inauguration; afterward, only 12 percent hadn’t yet made a judgment.

This first lady is like no other in recent memory. She had no experience in the political spotlight before landing in this high-profile, if poorly defined, role at the top of American public life. She was known in New York celebrity circles, of course, and pictured in society coverage as the wife of a publicity-loving billionaire whose name adorns skyscrapers, hotels and golf courses.

But national politics, unlike celebrity and fame, often demands more gravitas and homage to tradition. Melania Trump is navigating this all in real time, without the training wheels her predecessors had, and with a partner whose political brand is built on upending Washington norms.

Before becoming first lady, Michelle Obama was the wife of a state senator and then a U.S. senator. Laura Bush was married to a Texas governor and a member of a family steeped in politics. Hillary Clinton’s husband had been the attorney general and then governor of Arkansas. Barbara Bush had a wealth of experience as the wife of a former CIA director, ambassador to China, congressman and vice president.

As political spouses, these women made mistakes and learned from them.

Trump’s first major foray was publicly bruising. She was the wife of the candidate then, supporting him as he accepted the Republican Party nomination. Her speech at the convention was cribbed from her predecessor’s — and the plagiarism was rightly blasted.

It’s enough to make a person want to hole up in a posh Manhattan penthouse and tend to her 10-year-old son. Get back to basics.

Now, though, there are signs that Trump is testing the waters as first lady. Earlier this month, she visited a hospital in Manhattan to read to sick children. She chose the classic, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” In the lore of first ladies, this is public relations gold.

Trump’s visit cast her as nurturing and selfless, with little risk. No tyke was going to pop up and ask whether she had permission to quote Dr. Seuss.

Last week, she hosted an invitation-only luncheon at the White House in honor of International Women’s Day and spoke about equality, freedom and women helping each other achieve success. Also, the Trumps will honor the 139-year-old custom next month of rolling Easter eggs across the White House South Lawn.

Step by step, Trump is adopting traditions we associate with first ladies. Her next challenge will be the gravitas.

Before Election Day, Trump said she was interested in working to combat cyberbullying, but she hasn’t begun, at least not publicly. Nancy Reagan is remembered for her anti-drug message, Obama for encouraging kids to exercise and Laura Bush for reminding children to read. Must each first lady have a cause? It will be interesting to see how Trump answers that question.

For now, she’s made it clear that she will remain in New York until son Barron finishes his school year. This also allows her to approach her new role with caution.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.

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