The First Lady’s offices run along a hushed corridor on the second floor of the East Wing, where the policy team occupies an office next to the calligraphers who write ornate invitations to the mansion’s many formal events. That the position of first lady has become embarrassingly anachronistic is no big revelation. But after the 2008 victory, there were hopes that Michelle Obama’s political appeal and charisma would enable her to transform it into something that reflected the role of modern women as equal participants in the political process.
Surprisingly, though, her first move was to declare that she wanted to play it safe. A few days before her husband took the oath of office, she gathered her small staff at the presidential transition headquarters in downtown Washington and outlined a distinctly narrow vision. “We don’t have to do anything,” she told her aides, according to people familiar with the meeting, “so anything we decide to do, we need to do really, really well.” She didn’t want to get in the way of the president’s agenda, she explained. She only wanted to be, as she would say often over the years, “value-added.”