Michelle Obama Makes First Solo Trip—and First Surprise Visit—on the Same Day

En route to her first solo diplomatic mission in Mexico this week, Michelle Obama made a surprise visit today to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, to survey the recovery efforts in the island country hit with a massive 7.0 earthquake in January. Along with Jill Biden, Obama took a helicopter tour of the city and met with top government officials in the capital city, where more than a million people remain homeless.

The secret nature of Obama’s trip is curious. Usually, the White house keeps foreign travel under wraps when security may be compromised, like the case of President Obama’s unannounced trip to Afghanistan last month. In this case, the surprise may be more a factor of informality. A unpublicized visit prevents local officials, already distressed and short-handed, from having to make arduous and expensive security arrangements. It also allows the two women a somewhat normal visit, without red carpets and the usual fanfare for visiting dignitaries, which would contrast starkly with the tents and tarps that cover the city.

The White House released a statement saying that the purpose of the trip was to “help Haiti recover and rebuild, especially as we enter the rainy and hurricane seasons.” On the agenda is time to thank aid workers and see what more needs to be done. The date coincides with the three-month anniversary of the earthquake, although the first lady's timing seems to be fortuitous. After Mrs. Obama finishes the tour this afternoon, she’ll continue as planned for her two-day visit to Mexico, where she’s expected to have considerable face time with her counterpart, first lady Margarita Zavala, while visiting cultural sites and women's groups.

Visiting Mexico—and Haiti—was Mrs. Obama’s own idea, according to the White House. But it has been interpreted as a significant showing of the president’s focus toward Mexico, a country ravaged by violence since 2006 that has begun to spill over into the U.S. in Southwestern states. As the person who talks to the president first each morning and last each night, as Brookings’ Darrell West points out, “advice that she offers has a meaningful impact on substantive policy.”