Jan. 18, 2013 at 11:32 AM ET
Aside from her recent surprise hairstyle and a new Twitter account, Michelle Obama seldom called attention to herself. Yet, she emerged from her husband’s first term more popular than the president, the “mom-in-chief” who championed military families and healthy lifestyles.
But time will tell whether she’ll make those or other issues a signature in her final years at the White House.
Second-term first ladies usually feel freer to speak more forcefully about their pet issues, said Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University.
“You don’t see them deviating greatly from their interests or public causes from their first terms, but there’s a general sense of being more relaxed in advocating the more controversial aspects of those projects,” she said.
Case in point: Laura Bush.
During her husband’s first term, the former librarian rarely made any political statements.
“She was basically a Bess Truman — she left Harry alone and went back to Independent, Mo., whenever she could,” said Robert Watson, who has written two books and one encyclopedia on first ladies.
But after President George W. Bush won a second term, his wife surprised many people when she began speaking out against the deplorable way Afghan women were treated in their country. It’s an issue she continues to lecture about today.
Bush also spoke out against the repressive dictator in Myanmar, championing the release of the recently freed democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Mrs. Bush felt a certain amount of freedom because she knew they didn’t have to face re-election again,” said Myra Gutin, a frequent lecturer on first ladies. “These were definitely issues more political in nature, but at that point, a second-term first lady will ask, 'Is it going to cost my husband political capital?' Eh, maybe, but he’s not going to be voted out of office.”
Jellison noted Eleanor Roosevelt also surprised people in her second term. Although she arrived at the White House with a more progressive attitude than her husband about civil rights, she didn’t push the issue until Franklin D. Roosevelt won a second term.
“That’s when she became acknowledged as civil rights advocate. She resigns from the Daughters of the American Revolution because of their racist rules, and she would put her chair right on the color line (separating blacks from whites) when she traveled in the South,” Jellison said.
And she did it all thinking it would be her last term in office, not knowing her husband would be re-elected two more times.
Officially, the White House remains mum on Michelle Obama’s agenda, outside from acknowledging that “we’re developing our second term strategic plan right now.”
In the meantime, Obama will continue work on her key initiatives, Joining Forces, which supports military families, and the Let’s Move! campaign to battle childhood obesity. Both have proved extremely popular for the first lady.
Obama acknowledged that she has learned to avoid controversy over the years.
“I think that I am strategic,” she told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie during an interview last fall. “I feel like I have to be strategic because I want to be sure that the things I that do further my husband's administration."
One topic that she has largely avoided has been race, something that surprised Gutin, a communications professor at Rider University and the author of several books on first ladies.
“There’s always that race consciousness there, but Mrs. Obama has really gone beyond that and has made it a non-issue,” she said.
But race definitely weighs on Obama’s mind, particularly as she starts to think about what kind of legacy she will leave behind, said Watson.
“She is the first African-American first lady and therefore it is something special. A thousand years from today, you’ll talk about Martha Washington and Eleanor Roosevelt, and you’ll talk about Michelle Obama," Watson said. "She's making history and so she’s got to be concerned about her legacy.”
One main reason is because of her age. The first lady, turned 49 Thursday by launching a Twitter account and posting a photo of her with new bangs, has plenty of years to reflect upon her time at the White House once she moves out.
“She can have decades to think, ‘Why didn’t I do that or try that?’ Michelle Obama will have plenty of time to think, ‘Wow, why didn’t I embrace everything from gun control to affirmative action?’” Watson said.
He predicted Obama won’t tackle overtly political issues head on, but she will get bolder.
“I suspect she’ll take some time to spread her wings a wee bit more but then I think she’ll swing for the fence more than she does now.”