First Lady Michelle Obama said she spent her first year in the White House "figuring out the job," which included 200 events, visiting 14 states, eight foreign countries, six military bases, starting a mentoring program, planting a garden and settling her family in a new town. Now the woman who called herself a "110-percenter" says that with her year one foundation in place, in 2010 she will take on her first formal policy role, leading the Obama administration initiative to reduce childhood obesity.
She talked about the past year and her plans for the one ahead during an hour-long session on Wednesday in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House, a setting dominated by portraits of two former first ladies, Frances Cleveland and Edith Roosevelt. She is looking for her place in first lady history. "Until we've moved the ball on something -- that's the legacy I want," she said. "I want to leave something behind that we can say, 'Because of this time this person spent here, this thing has changed.' And my hope is that that's going to be in the area of childhood obesity."
The conversation with seven print reporters was wide-ranging, touching on race relations, those state dinner party crashers, the weight of the presidency on her husband, the joy of seeing her daughters meet the queen of England and the pope, and how impossible it's been to find a weekend to return home to Chicago because those kids have so much going on.
Mrs. Obama wore a reddish short-sleeve dress and over-the-knee Jimmy Choo boots -- "these boots are my answer to stockings," she said -- and sported a new, shorter hairdo.
The Obamas have lived in Washington for a bit more than a year. The president will mark the first anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20, but the family moved to Washington earlier in January 2009 so their daughters could enroll in their new school. It was not until March, Mrs. Obama said, that Malia, 11 and Sasha, 8, felt settled.
"The girls came home from school one day and said, 'You know, Mom, this is okay; this feels like home.' And that was the first time that I really was able to breath a sigh of relief."
Mrs. Obama said she saw her first year as "laying a solid foundation" for several initiatives, with the White House garden a focal point for her agenda about healthy eating, exercise and childhood obesity.
"The garden and this first year was really a good way to begin that conversation in kind of a non-threatening way, to feel the pulse of the nation about how do you talk about this in a way that doesn't make already overstressed, anxious parents feel even more guilty about a very hard thing to do, which is making sure your kids eat right every day, and that they're healthy and getting the right amount of exercise," she said.
Her staffers said Mrs. Obama will start the anti-obesity drive next Wednesday during a speech before the U.S. Conference of Mayors, with other events to follow in the coming weeks. She will be the lead spokesman as Congress is poised this year to take up legislation to re-authorize the school lunch program, which will be an important component of the initiative, along with partnerships with business and non-profit groups.
Asked if she would consider testifying before Congress -- only three other first ladies have: Eleanor Roosevelt in 1940, Rosalynn Carter in 1979 and Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1993 -- Mrs. Obama said yes: "I'd be willing to do whatever it would take to further an agenda."
Susan Sher, Mrs. Obama's chief of staff, said their goal, in summary, was to solve the childhood obesity problem in the "next generation."
On other fronts:
*Mrs. Obama turns 46 on Sunday. Asked how she will celebrate, she said, "We don't have big plans that I know of. I think I may go out to dinner with my husband."
*Asked her reaction to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid describing President Obama during the 2008 campaign as a "light- skinned" African-American with "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one," she said: "Harry Reid had no need to apologize to me, because I know Harry Reid. And I measure people more so on what they do rather than the things that they say."
She said she is "proud of the fact that I'm the first African-American first lady," and when it comes to race relations, "None of us should be complacent in believing, for example, that just because we have a black president, everything is fixed."
*Asked if there was any "redo" she wanted on her first year, she said there was none, including the Nov. 24 state dinner -- her first -- which created a gate-crashing scandal when three people managed to attend without invitations.
"The state dinner was an outstanding success. It's just the follow-up after it. It's just -- I look at the reporting on the state dinner and go, 'Is that all that happened?' Really, because I sat in a phenomenal dinner where the prime minister [of India] and his wife . . . felt so connected to the United States, and they were so proud to be there, and the evening was so wonderful, and it was so well orchestrated, that for me the other stuff that everybody is talking about is a footnote to what the state dinner actually was. So I wouldn't do that over."
*On staying grounded: Mrs. Obama said she checks in with friends and asks from time to time, "Do you still recognize me?"
She said "the other thing that keeps you grounded, for anybody that has kids -- they're kids, because essentially when you sit around the dinner table, and Barack starts talking about anything, essentially they're just waiting for him to shut up until they can start talking about what they think is important, which usually has nothing to do with the 'big' [things]. Our conversations are still about friends and school and the general observations about life that kids who are 11 and 8 have."
*While president-elect, Obama envisioned returning to Chicago every six weeks or couple of months. Asked why it turned out the family has returned to Chicago only once this past year -- that was on Valentine's Day (though the president himself has returned two other times, for business daytrips) -- Mrs. Obama said the kids' weekend schedule made it tough to find the time.
"So its less our schedules than them. Who's got kids? I mean, they dictate the weekend. The take it and they shake it up, and then you're left with the pieces of your life." Anyway, the native South Sider does not want to return to Chicago while its cold and snowy. "It's like, January's out," she said.
*Asked to reflect on how the president has changed in this past year, she said, "Barack is a steady force of a person and he is the same man that I've known. I mean, he is incredibly even-keeled, and the same sense of humor. He is working non-stop."
*Asked about a memorable moment, Mrs. Obama talked about the impact of foreign travel on her girls and her mother, Marian Robinson, who had not journeyed much past her South Side Chicago home before moving into the White House.
"Watching the kids meet the pope, that was -- I still have a vision of that. Tea with the Queen . . . we got to meet her with the girls; the visit to Cape Coast [in Africa] was powerful."
*And asked what she made of Sarah Palin, Mrs. Obama said, "You know, I don't know her. And what I've learned in this arena is that unless I've had a chance to have a conversation with somebody and get to know them, I have no idea who she is. I didn't read her book. I've met her once. So, you know, I don't know who she is, and I wouldn't even begin to comment on somebody that I haven't had a reaction -- an interaction with."
So, who were the seven scribes around the table? Your Politics Daily and Chicago Sun-Times correspondent and reporters from the Chicago Tribune, AP, New York Times, Essence, Politico and the Washington Post.