Michelle's staff of 22 knows not to cram her schedule with events that don't serve some larger strategic agenda. "What's the purpose?" she frequently demands of aides when presented with a proposal. "Am I value-added?" Once she settles on a schedule, her staff says she will spend hours and even days preparing for one appearance. For a major speech, like her address to West Point families at last month's commencement weekend, she will hand-edit multiple drafts. Staff will then drag a lectern into her office, where she will rehearse the speech with a teleprompter for days. "She demands a lot of herself," says Axelrod.
Despite her commitment to controlling her agenda, there still are plenty of traditional obligations that can't be avoided, and at times the first lady may have unwittingly conveyed ambivalence. Congressional wives were disappointed in how a series of luncheons was handled for the 500-plus spouses: the women were invited alphabetically, which, several said, showed no effort to create an interesting mix of guests. "I went with the Ks," said one wife of a Democratic congressman. "I barely said hello to her." This woman contrasted the lunch with a similar event hosted by Laura Bush, who obligingly took a group of the wives upstairs to see the Lincoln Bedroom--and then posed for pictures with each of them in the room. "I admire what Michelle is doing with all her public-service efforts," said the spouse, "but Laura was warm and made you feel like you were visiting her home."