Michelle Obama decided to go all in. Ever since her husband took office in January, the first lady has been cautious about the causes she embraced. But with her hometown of Chicago vying to host the 2016 Olympics, Michelle boarded a plane to Copenhagen last month to make a personal appeal. She brought along Oprah Winfrey, worked her sleeveless charm on the assembled dignitaries, and even lunched with the Queen of Denmark. Her efforts culminated in a passionate televised speech to the International Olympic Committee—perhaps her most high-profile advocacy ever. Then it all fell flat. Rio won the Olympic bid; Chicago never made it to the final round.
Friends say Michelle was heartbroken by the surprise defeat. But I hope she won't be discouraged for long. Even if her push did not pay off, Copenhagen provided a glimpse of what Michelle can be like when she wants something: determined, focused, spirited, graceful. We saw flashes of that Michelle during her husband's campaign. But in the year since the election, she's mostly played it safe, dabbling in traditional East Wing issues—much like the first ladies before her—without yet gaining much traction on any particular front.
OK, expectations were impossibly high when Michelle stepped into the role of first lady in January. African-American women in particular followed her every move—from her attention-getting wardrobe choices to her brief remarks on domestic policy. The truth is, she's done pretty much what she said she'd do. She's served as the "mom in chief" helping her family adjust to life in Washington. She's opened the White House doors to local residents for evenings of mentoring and jazz music. Her schedule—which is typically jampacked on the three days of the week she holds public events—has included more than 50 visits to schools and community centers. She's accompanied the president to seven countries on three different trips. She's also made good on her vow to take up the problems of military families by visiting bases regularly to personally hear their stories of pain and loss—tales she relays to White House staffers back home. She's even been Hula-Hooping with kids on the White House lawn to play up the virtues of exercise and healthy eating.
But I selfishly yearn for more. I want to know how she feels about children killing children back in her hometown of Chicago. Or whether she has any ideas about how to stop the ever-increasing numbers of African-American women falling victim to AIDS. That's a huge problem in her own backyard: at least 3 percent of Washington, D.C., residents are infected with HIV—a rate higher than West Africa's. These too-often-neglected issues need a face like Michelle's. "She's such a smart lady, and I know she can figure out something to help us,'' says Camile Johnson, a lunchroom worker in Inglewood, Calif. "My sister is 28 years old with AIDS. She has three children and can barely afford the medicine and feed her children. We need someone like Mrs. Obama fighting on my sister's behalf because other people seem not to care."
Some of the first lady's reticence may stem from a desire to avoid the missteps of her predecessors, especially Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Obama "is her own woman, and I do think she's taking her time and considering very carefully where she plants her flag,'' says one confidant of the first lady who did not wish to be identified discussing private matters. "You only have one public image, and one false move can ruin the whole thing. She's very aware of that and wants to avoid the Hillary path. As an African-American woman, she's taken much more heat than Hillary ever did. That's not something she wants to face, for her children's sake.''
While the president's favorable ratings have fallen since the inauguration—from 78 percent in January to 60 percent last week in a CNN/Opinion Research poll—Michelle's have dipped just five points, to 64 percent. Friends say she's wary of doing anything to drag her husband down further. "Hillary Clinton was very much a lightning rod in her husband's world and presidency,'' says the confidant. "Michelle has no desire to be that for her husband or in this presidency. She didn't want to be that in the campaign. She wants to make a mark, but she's content to do it gradually.''
Considering the pushback the president himself has faced on nearly every issue, I'd understand if Michelle wanted nothing more than to hang out in her organic garden. But that would be a mistake. Those still-solid approval ratings give the first lady an opportunity to plug both the president's agenda (as she has begun to do on health-care reform) and her own. She could build on what she's done so far—and manage to be home in time to help Malia and Sasha with their homework. Imagine turning her healthy-eating quest into a full-blown anti-obesity campaign that takes on the junk-food lobby. Or making AIDS prevention and condom use a part of the national health-care debate.
So I hope Michelle comes to see Copenhagen as a starting point. If she steps out again, she'll certainly risk controversy and maybe even failure. But if she doesn't use this chance to take on the issues that really matter, that's just a failure of another kind.