First Influences

It’s a role with no paycheck and no specific duties, but the position of first lady of the United States commands great influence. Throughout history, first ladies have influenced policy, championed social causes and even set fashion trends.

Dolley Madison was the first to emerge as more than the woman behind the man when she risked her life to remove treasures from the burning White House during the War of 1812. Other strong first ladies have included Eleanor Roosevelt, who became the eyes and ears for a husband with polio and broke precedent by holding press conferences, traveling around the country and giving her opinions freely in a syndicated newspaper column. Jacqueline Kennedy was a national symbol of fashion and elegance who took on roles as decorator and historian with White House restoration projects. Nancy Reagan led the “Just Say No” campaign against drug use.

Michelle Obama also will likely wield significant influence as first lady. With her working-class roots and Ivy League education, Obama brings unique qualifications to the job. Her résumé includes corporate lawyer, community activist and university administrator. As the first black first lady, she’s already made history and is an inspiration to many seeking to break through barriers.

Being “Mom-in-Chief” is her first priority, she says, giving her daughters the same firm foundation she gained from her loving and supportive parents. As first lady, Obama says family issues will be among her causes, including working to support military families and helping women balance work and family. She also plans to encourage national service for all Americans.

“I think there’s a lot that can be done with this platform,” she has said. Although her role isn’t fully defined, one thing is for sure: She will be the president’s close confidante and adviser, a first-lady tradition that transcends political parties and can be traced back to our nation’s beginning. As President Obama puts it, “Michelle is my rock.”

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