Look For First Lady To Champion Working Women

When Barack Obama officially takes office in January, his wife, Michelle, will make history as well, as she becomes the country's first African-American first lady. During the campaign, she championed the cause of working women, which she'll likely continue in the White House.

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And when Barack Obama takes office in January, his wife, Michelle, will also make history as the country's first African-American first lady. She's joked that her title will be chief mom. During the campaign, she championed the cause of working women, and that will likely continue when she's in the White House. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: Think of the enormity of it all when the Obamas change their address to the White House on Inauguration Day. There's a symbolism, of course. But practically, there's much to be done as a family pulls up its Chicago roots and moves to that 132-room mansion in Washington, D.C. Already, President-elect Obama has said his wife is working to get their daughters, 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Sasha, settled.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: Michelle will be scouting out some schools. We'll be making a decision about that in the future.

CORLEY: The Obama children will be the youngest to live in the White House in nearly three decades. The girls were Michelle Obama's priority throughout the campaign, but she also telegraphed her interest in the issue of work-life balance. Here's what she told NPR before addressing the Democratic National Convention.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: We're still at a point in time in this country where women earn 77 cents to every dollar that a man earns. We're still in the position where women who are the primary breadwinners are making the choice between taking on an extra job that they need and being able to cover the cost of childcare to be able to go to that job. I mean, women are struggling, families are struggling, but women bear that brunt.

CORLEY: Obama has worked since graduating from Princeton and Harvard, first as an attorney at a top Chicago law firm, then as an executive at Chicago City Hall at Public Allies, a community organization that trains young people to leave nonprofits, and at a Chicago hospital where she worked to expand neighborhood clinics. Michelle Obama's close friend and a senior adviser on the transition team, Valerie Jarrett, says in addition to her concerns about working women, Michelle Obama has been moved by discussions she's had with military spouses.

Ms. VALERIE JARRETT (Co-Chairman, Obama-Biden Transition Project): She's just, you know, only deepened her appreciation for the enormous sacrifice not just the folks who are serving in our military make, but their families as well.

CORLEY: Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian with the National First Ladies Museum, says as Michelle Obama works to define her role in the White House, she will undergo public scrutiny like all first ladies, but more so because she is the first African-American in the position.

Mr. CARL SFERRAZZA ANTHONY (Historian, National First Ladies Museum): Much like the way things happened when Jacqueline Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic, or even Ida McKinley, who was the first and only disabled first lady, came in. At first it might seem sort of novel and unusual and different, obviously. Very quickly, that novelty wears off, and they become judged as they should be, an individual human being.

CORLEY: Unlike former first lady Hillary Clinton, who unsuccessfully headed up health reform efforts, Obama says she is not likely to take a leadership role in promoting legislation. Here's what she told NPR during that same interview before her convention address.

Ms. OBAMA: I don't like to be involved in the process stuff. Quite frankly, I know Barack. I trust him implicitly. He is smart.

CORLEY: And she says she values her husband's judgment. But historian Anthony says even President-elect Obama has called his wife the closer, and he expects her executive background and management experience will help shape some decisions. Anthony says most first ladies have been informal advisers to the president.

Mr. ANTHONY: When somebody's there on a daily basis, and at night in private, the influence on the thinking is where the first lady ultimately has the unaccountable power. It makes her the wild card, really, of the American political system.

CORLEY: But Valerie Jarrett, the adviser who knows the Obamas so well, says Michelle Obama has lived the American dream, and what she will be as first lady is a message to every child that they, too, could one day become the first lady or, like Michelle Obama's husband, the president. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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