Washington Michelle Obama said it: Washington is her home now, and she wants to get to know it.
She is making the rounds, meeting federal workers at Cabinet departments, reading to children, chatting with teens, touring a neighborhood health center, dropping in at Howard University and enjoying family night at the Kennedy Center. She’s even splashed across the cover of the March issue of Vogue, with a headline that proclaims her “The First Lady the World’s Been Waiting For.”
That was just the first two weeks of February.
The first lady who had seemed to suggest she’d take her time settling in to her new role is off to a fast start — like a cannonball, in the words of Letitia Baldrige, who served as social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy.
“We were taught that you have to get to know the community that you’re in, and you have to be a part of that community, you have to get to know it in order to, you know, actively engage in it,” Mrs. Obama told a teenager at Mary’s Center, a community health center in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, who asked why she was visiting.
“And D.C. is our community now. It’s our home,” she said.
Eyes, ears for president
Her trips outside the gated White House compound serve several purposes, including giving her a chance to learn about the complexities of a city she decided against relocating to after Barack Obama became a senator in 2005.
His presidency has brought her, and their 10- and 7-year-old daughters, here now. And, Mrs. Obama’s mother migrated, too, to provide crucial backup in taking care of Sasha and Malia.
“Our first job as new members of this community is to listen, and to learn and to be thankful and grateful for what people have already done,” Mrs. Obama said at Howard, where excited students jockeyed for a glimpse of the first lady.
Except, the president is “real busy right now. So I figured, well, I got a little time on my hands, and, you know, while the kids are at school I want to come out and hear about the programs. I want to meet the students,” she said at Mary’s Center.
Mrs. Obama is acting as an ambassador to the public, another set of eyes and ears for the president.
She set out on a listening tour of the federal bureaucracy on Feb. 2, promising to go from agency to agency “to learn, to listen, to take information back where possible” and meet “our new co-workers and our new neighbors.”
She’s met scores of government workers, many of whom waited in line for hours at the departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Interior, for the chance to see her and hear what she had to say.
On these pep rally-like visits, where she thanks federal workers for their service, she boosts the spirits of a group that sometimes felt neglected by the previous administration. She doubles as Obama’s salesman, and has been explaining how money from his $787 billion economic recovery package will affect their work.
At the Education Department, she said the department will be “at the forefront” of much of what the administration wants to do, including renovating and modernizing schools, increasing Pell Grants and providing tuition tax credits.
She talked to HUD workers about reducing home foreclosures, calling homeownership one of the “building blocks for strong neighborhoods, for strong schools and strong families.” She said the stimulus bill will put people back to work by improving a program that helps communities buy foreclosed or abandoned properties for rehabilitation or resale.
Her eight minutes of remarks at Interior echoed the president, including calls to stem climate change and use natural resources responsibly. “Sound energy and environmental policies are going to help create thousands of jobs,” she said.