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

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It is a move in the direction toward more substantive exposure, but still shy of embracing the traditional public role that some would like to see.

First ladies essentially step into these unpaid jobs with no official duties and work to carve out an agenda that at best dovetails with the president's—or at least doesn't get in his way. History shows that finding the right issues and tone can be a tricky effort. Nancy Reagan was viewed as a vapid California socialite until she latched onto her signature "Just Say No" campaign to discourage teenage drug use. By contrast, Hillary Clinton drew harsh criticism for leading her husband's failed drive to reform health care. Michelle has come across as neither the doe-eyed adoring wife nor the intense political adviser. But she has been fully engaged in shaping her own image and goals.

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.

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