* Campaign over, first lady loosens up
* Star power or saturation?
* Kids will remain her focus
By Deborah Charles
CHICAGO, Feb 28 First lady Michelle Obama knows
she has star power, and she has used it for four years to
champion her causes of fighting childhood obesity and helping
But now that she has successfully made it through the last
political campaign for her husband, President Barack Obama, the
first lady is also having fun with her popularity - raising
questions over whether she has gone too far in becoming a pop
Her surprise appearance at the Academy Awards - where she
was beamed in from the White House dressed in a sparkling
evening gown to announce the Best Picture award - provided
ammunition for her critics.
The first lady has enjoyed a steady positive approval rating
over the past four years, even at times when her husband sank in
But the Oscar appearance - coming on the heels of the "mom
dance" that she did with late night comedian Jimmy Fallon, which
quickly went viral on the Internet - sparked a debate on the
proper role of a first lady.
Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, who often writes
about minority issues, described Obama's Oscar appearance as
"unbecoming frivolity" and urged the first lady to "raise her
game" and take up a more expanded role in the second term
championing more serious causes.
"Enough with the broccoli and Brussels sprouts," Milloy
wrote this week in the Washington Post. "Where is that
intellectually gifted Princeton graduate, the Harvard-educated
lawyer and mentor to the man who would become the first African
American president of the United States?"
His column sparked hundreds of comments, ranging from people
who thought Obama was doing a great job raising awareness about
the childhood obesity problem to others who thought she was
trying too hard to be like a Hollywood star.
The first lady said she was not surprised by the controversy
over her Oscars appearance, but said she would use all forms of
media to get out her message and would reach out to all
demographics - including filmmakers who could help with her
efforts to introduce children to arts and culture.
"Anyone in this position has a huge spotlight," Obama told a
small group of reporters traveling with her on a three-city tour
to promote her Let's Move program to fight childhood obesity.
"We've always thought about that spotlight. And taking it,
while it's looking at you, to stand in front of something good
so it shines on that too," Obama said, before jumping and
dancing with more than 6,500 kids gathered in Chicago to
highlight the importance of daily exercise.
NO JOB DESCRIPTION
Obama gained much of her popularity because Americans could
relate to her, whether she was recounting stories of struggling
to pay student loans early in her marriage with President Obama
or talking about the difficulties of raising daughters Sasha and
Malia on her own in Chicago while her husband worked as a U.S.
senator in Washington.
As she travels about the country championing the Let's Move
program, she talks of how she was forced into rethinking her
daughters' eating habits several years ago after their
pediatrician warned that they could be on the road to becoming
She said the Obama administration was the first to face such
intense media scrutiny - from 24-hour news cycles to Twitter to
innumerable blogs - so it was just inevitable that there was
more of a focus on everything she does.
Her programs have shown some progress, with healthier school
lunches now being served across the country and childhood
obesity rates dropping in some states like Mississippi.
But should Obama be dancing on TV with a comedian dressed in
drag or stunning 40 million viewers and the actors attending the
"You don't really have a job description as first lady. And
you're held up to this standard where it's impossible to please
everyone all the time," said Anita McBride, former chief of
staff to Laura Bush when she was first lady.
"I wouldn't say this has crossed the line. But coming on the
heels of the very popular 'Mom Dance' ... It's saturating. You
have to say - how much is too much?," said McBride.
Although the second Obama administration has only just
begun, the first lady said she was aware that time was short for
her to have an impact.
She said she planned to keep working on her two main
projects - Let's Move and the Joining Forces military families
program - but was also trying to decide what other causes she
might champion in the next four years.
She said in the coming weeks she would decide what to
pursue, but it would certainly focus on kids. Obama said she
might begin to get more involved in the international arena but
it would have to dovetail with her domestic projects.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in Chicago with Obama to
announce a new public-private partnership to help kids get 60
minutes of exercise a day, said when the first lady was involved
in a cause it added weight to the program.
"I think having the first lady leading that effort - as the
mom-in-chief, as she's called - I think that can be really,
really powerful," he said. "She is beloved, she is respected and
I think people will pay attention."
A 2007 study said only 4 percent of elementary schools and 8
percent of middle schools provide daily physical education
courses for the entire school year.
(Editing by Claudia Parsons)