Chicago Sun-Times
The scoop from Washington

First Lady Michelle Obama's East Wing taking off. Healthy living added to agenda. Debut White House gala tonight



WASHINGTON -- It's Friday in the East Wing of the Obama White House, the realm of first lady Michelle Obama.

Many of the cream-colored walls are still bare. The Obama administration, after all, is just one month old.

But there is a growing photo collection in the hallways that charts the increasing activity of the first lady in the last two weeks as she settles in to her new role and starts expanding her portfolio of issues.

The newest item on her non-controversial agenda is healthy living. That's in addition to assisting military families, pushing work-family balance, national service, women's concerns and opening up the White House to the community.

The pictures tell a story of the first weeks of the administration and the first lady ramping up her public appearances. There's the nation's first couple in formal wear at the Alfalfa Dinner. And Mrs. Obama receiving an American Indian shawl at the Interior Department. The first lady greeting White House staff in the East Room and hugging a little girl at a school in the city. An empty frame waits to be filled.

The first lady on this morning is in her office.

Some days, she works from the White House residence. Her schedule isn't rigid. A few hours from now, Mrs. Obama will head to the Transportation Department.

Desiree Rogers, the White House social secretary, is outside the first lady's office door with her two deputies, Ebs Burnough and Joe Reinstein. The East Wing is producing its first big dinner tonight, a black-tie affair for the National Governors Association, and the operative word, Rogers is saying, is that the event should be "fun." The governors wanted to dance, so Earth, Wind and Fire was booked for the gig. Mrs. Obama was involved in planning the evening.

In this first month in the White House, Mrs. Obama has:

†Visited five federal agencies on her meet-and-greet tour. Besides Transportation, she has stopped at the Departments of Education, Interior, Housing and Urban Development and Agriculture, where she plugged fruits and vegetables.

†Become more familiar with her new city. She has lunched with Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty and Jill Biden, taken in a ballet with the family at the Kennedy Center and visited a community health center.

†Hosted an African-American History Month event at the White House. "African-American slaves helped to build this house," she said.

†Discussed balancing family and work at a panel aimed at women at Howard University.

†And, of course, continued her key role as mom-in-chief to daughters Malia and Sasha, with an assist from her mother, Marion Robinson.

On Saturday, the Obama family traveled to a Washington suburb to watch Sasha play in a basketball game.

The first lady's domain includes about 20 staffers -- some veteran political operatives -- who deal with policy, planning, social events and the news media, plus about 95 employees who work in the White House residence.

I asked Jackie Norris, the first lady's chief of staff, about Mrs. Obama's routine. In the East Wing, the first lady is an "active presence," Norris said.

"We meet regularly as a senior staff to talk about long-term strategy and really think through the ways that we can maximize the first lady's time," Norris said. "We are developing the first lady's portfolio of issues that she will be working on and supporting on behalf of the president. It's the process where we all sit around the table a lot and have conversations and think about the best way to make an impact.

"And I think the key thing to think about in our first lady is that she comes in wanting to be value-added and wanting to support the president and the president's agenda."

During the campaign, a regular stump-speech feature of the future president was a riff on parents' responsibility not to let their kids gorge on junk food. In that vein, Mrs. Obama is taking on healthy living as a cause. While the Obamas are known as foodies, the first lady is not a purist. She took some of her newer staff out to a Five Guys Burgers and Fries in Washington recently. Her order: a cheeseburger, fries and a Coke.

Norris said of Mrs. Obama's healthy-living agenda: "It is more about returning to the basics of healthy eating. One of the things that we have talked about doing here is really thinking about ways that we can bring healthy eating in to the White House. And so you may see that reflected in state dinner menus."

When Hillary Rodham Clinton was first lady, her operation was dubbed "Hillaryland." In the Obama White House, Norris said, "One of the things that is really important to us is that we are a unified White House, that we see ourselves as all members of the same team."


i can't wait to forward this to the kennedy school folk. what about the previous day's headline about 1.5 mil due from the obama campaign due to the city of chicago.

where will they put shaq's shoe?

It is time to address the no 1 cause of =death of our children the alcohol billion dollar adv and narketing on our nations youth, and no on killer ,the perpetrator of all crimes and horror,alcoholism is on the rise, what economy disater?? where is she for this epedemic, silence is golden? million paid for it activist 1st lady, what a front,

It is time to address the no 1 cause of =death of our children the alcohol billion dollar adv and narketing on our nations youth, and no on killer ,the perpetrator of all crimes and horror,alcoholism is on the rise, what economy disater?? where is she for this epedemic, silence is golden? million paid for it activist 1st lady, what a front,

Not News Lynn. None of it.
We just killed 3 'militants' and 13 civilians (make that killed 3 'militants' and created 650 NEW 'militants') in this fake 'war on terror'--it's an OIL WAR.
Why did Barack Obama tell us he'd end this only to turn around and act like some Texas village's missing oil baron idiot?

President has only been in office for ONE month, seems to me the coupon has done a lot in 30 days-- why are some of us acting like they could have done more--- so far the President and First Lady get an A+ in my book

I am thrilled to have Michelle Obama as our First Lady.

And as a native Washingtonian, I am thrilled to have her living in my home city.

Her visits to the employees of federal agencies are so important! To express appreciation and recognition of their important work is vital to their morale. Maybe Eleanor Roosevelt did this, but I can't think of any other First Ladies who have.

She is terrific!

I think Michelle Obama is doing a great deal to help the women of America by setting an example as a woman who supports her husband and takes care of her children and keep a busy schedule with more to come. I appreciate her humility and unity of her role! She has an A+ so far in my book!

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on February 22, 2009 11:02 AM.

Burris talks to Feds on Saturday. Sun-Times-NBC/5 exclusive was the previous entry in this blog.

First Lady Michelle Obama, Desiree Rogers preview White House dinner tonight. Menu. Pool reports is the next entry in this blog.

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