NEW YORK– In one week, Michelle Obama sat for a formal White House portrait, dressed in somber, tailored clothes; posed for a snazzy People magazine cover, dressed in a slightly down-market, hot-pink lace outfit that showed plenty of skin; let the national media know that the First Family would be getting its new puppy from a rescue shelter; and had her press office mention casually that “secretaries and policy makers” had been invited for popcorn and movies at the White House.
That same week, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 1930’s, a national poll found that support for President Barack Obama was remarkably high, with respondents consistently saying that he “cares about people like me.”
These two phenomena are closely related. Almost from her first appearance in the public eye, Michelle Obama has used clothing, etiquette, and such cues as where she shops and entertains to send out a subtle but radical message to American voters and to the world. For the first time since the days of Andrew Jackson, the White House is aggressively “democratizing” the highest office in the land, and symbolically inviting in the common man – and now the common woman.
In other words, Mrs. Obama is managing to set herself up, unprecedentedly, as the “people’s First Lady.” She has carefully studied not only Jackie Kennedy – a comparison obvious from her sheath dresses, boat collars, and page-boy haircut – but also the triumphs and failures of that other glamorous but underestimated stealth radical, Princess Diana.