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Michelle Obama: A first lady undercover and carving her own path

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She must once again find her footing in the part of the job she hates the most—campaigning--but one she happens to excel at. "She has always been remarkably effective because no matter where you live or where you come from, you can relate to her," says White House official Stephanie Cutter, who worked closely with Michelle in 2008. "She conveys the same set of values and experiences families all over the country live by."

So reluctant has Michelle been to raise her profile that it's been easy to forget what a ferocious asset she was in the 2008 campaign. Toward the end, thousands of people were pushing into her rallies, shoving babies at her for photos, and mimicking her J.Crew clothes.

Coming off that huge success, Michelle startled the political establishment when she announced that she would limit her public appearances so she could tend to her family. (Her staff concedes that her initial declaration of working three days a week has been impossible to maintain.) The president's strategists say privately they would have liked her to do some heavier political lifting over the past two years, but that she's not someone who can be pushed. "She was always a reluctant campaigner," says a West Wing staffer who has witnessed some of the machinations to coax the first lady into making more political appearances. "She demands a level of thinking-through that can be taxing on the staff."

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