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Michelle Obama: It’s tough to stay grounded

Her every word, gesture and outfit has been analyzed and second-guessed. Is she taking on too much? Why isn't she doing more? Should her arms be bare? Are her shorts too short? "It wasn't something that I was prepared for," she said as she looked back on her first year as first lady.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Every once in a while Michelle Obama checks in with old friends.

"Do you still recognize me?" she'll ask. "Do I still feel like Michelle?"

In the past year, the first lady's name has popped up on Forbes' "most powerful women" list, People's "most beautiful" list, Time's "most influential" list, Vanity Fair's "international best-dressed" list, Barbara Walters' "most fascinating" list. And so on.

Her every word, move, bite, gesture, dress and shoe has been analyzed and second-guessed.

Is she taking on too much? Why isn't she doing more?

Did she touch the queen first? Should her arms be bare? Are her shorts too short? Are her sneakers too expensive? Is she putting on weight?

"It wasn't something that I was prepared for," she said last week as she looked back on her first year as first lady.

The challenge, then, has been to remain Michelle through it all, and not become "somebody else that is in a magazine."

To stay grounded yet reach high.

This is a first lady, after all, who wants to make a difference, who dares to speak even now about her legacy.

She has spent the past year giving the job of first lady a test run, settling her family into a new life in a new town, trying to avoid creating controversy for her already burdened husband and figuring out where to make her mark.

"Our goal was to do everything that was done before, so that we'd know what it was, and uphold those traditions, but try to tweak it," she told reporters last week. "And now that we've gone through a year, we can really think about really what works for this administration, what works for me as a first lady, what resonates with where America is today."

Looking back, then, here are a few moments that help to sketch the portrait of a first lady who calls herself a "110-percenter," always looking to do more.

The gardner
There she is, this Harvard-educated lawyer and former executive, digging up sweet potatoes on the back lawn of the White House.

US First lady Michelle Obama hosts a fall harvest of the White House vegetable garden with help of students from Washington's Bancroft and Kimball Elementary schools on October 29, 2009 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO / Tim Sloan (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)Tim Sloan / AFP

Michelle Obama, gardener?

The first lady took her "pipe dream" of a modest kitchen garden and transformed it into a platform that she hopes will improve the lives of millions of young people.

The garden gave her a gentle way to start up a conversation about healthy eating that will get more pointed this year as she makes a head-on campaign against childhood obesity.

"We have a chance to change the fate of the next generation if we get on it," she says.

This is what Obama hopes will be her legacy.

The nurturer
They could have been two girlfriends headed out to lunch: Michelle Obama and Queen Elizabeth, arm in arm, strolling in to a reception at Buckingham Palace in April.

It may have been the most closely watched touchy-feely gesture of the first lady's first year ("Astounding!" British wags called it), but it was hardly the only one.

Obama, whose husband is seen as a rather cool character, emerged as the nation's nurturer-in-chief.

She hugs with reckless abandon, closing her eyes and enveloping school children, young women, ordinary Americans.

It fits with her larger mission of mentoring young people, giving them the confidence to rise, as she says, "from mediocrity to fabulousness."

The first lady started up her own mentoring program at the White House and is urging other Americans to do likewise.

"If there is a program that speaks fundamentally to who I am," she says, "it is this."

The fashionista
The fascination with Michelle Obama's fashion choices started with her inaugural twirl in a white, one-shoulder Jason Wu gown and hasn't let up since.

The first lady looks as sophisticated in designer dresses as she does in outfits from J. Crew.

The first lady's wardrobe — mixing trendsetting designs and off-the-rack cardigans — won her accolades from the fashion world.

She even held her own in a fashion face-off with French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a former model, at the NATO summit in April.

Still, it must be said, there was the occasional howler.

Even her husband turned fashion critic at times, poking fun at what he calls her "Star Wars belt."

And it's a fair bet the first lady never meant to be photographed walking dog Bo on the South Lawn in those less-than-flattering Bermuda shorts.

The obsession with her wardrobe reflected the supersized scrutiny attached to everything about her.

No wonder she's a big fan of the presidential retreat at Camp David, far removed from any cameras.

The swan
Hours before the Obamas' first state dinner, the first lady stood before young women participating in the White House mentoring program and made a confession of sorts.

"It's sort of like a swan, where we're kind of calm and serene above water — but we're paddling like mad, going crazy underneath, trying to look smooth," she said.

Everything did seem perfectly in order that afternoon. The first lady's strapless, cream-colored evening gown was sure to be a knockout. A celebrity chef was trolling the garden for just the right herbs to garnish the evening's feast. A chandeliered tent on the South Lawn stood ready to receive 340 A-list guests.

Enter the party-crashing Salahis.

Somehow, without an invitation, the fame-seekers insinuated themselves into the scene and eventually overshadowed it.

The whole episode was emblematic of the outside forces that can upend things for a first lady who works from a carefully crafted script.

Looking back now, Obama dismisses the gate-crashers as a mere "footnote" to an otherwise wonderful evening.

At the time, though, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs described her as angry.

The good wife
It's where she started as first lady and where it all will end: Michelle Obama is a wife and mother.

She has spent the past year figuring out how to be a very public role model, policy advocate and mentor without losing hold of that.

She's tried to be the perfect example without suggesting she's perfect.

President-elect Barack Obama, left, kisses his wife Michelle Obama after addressing supporters at the election night rally in Chicago, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)Jae C. Hong / AP

When she sat for an Oval Office interview about marriage with her husband last fall — something of a novelty in itself — she insisted that bumps are inevitable, even continuous, in any relationship.

"The last thing we want to project," she said then, is the image of a perfect marriage.

Ask her what she's most proud of in the past year, and she doesn't hesitate: "That my kids are sane," she says.

And sanity can be a precious commodity when one's life gets this level of scrutiny.

Even the smallest choices go under the microscope.

When Sasha and Malia got their swine flu vaccinations last fall, the first family was trying to set an example for the country.

Instead, instantly there were howls that the girls had gotten preferential treatment, that they had somehow jumped the line — even though the first family made sure the girls got their vaccine only after it was broadly available to schoolchildren in the District of Columbia.

Last fall, a high school student in Denver asked what was the hardest thing about being first lady.

She gestured toward the ever-present bank of news cameras and said it was "making sure my girls don't get lost in all this."

"I want to make sure they come out of this as whole as possible," she said.

She was talking about Sasha and Malia. She could have been talking about herself.