Friday, June 26, 2009

Series on leadership: A First Lady Who Demands Substance (Washington Post)

During the Clinton efforts to reform healthcare in the US, I remember being a little uncomfortable at how much authority Hillary Clinton was assuming. The US elected Bill, but not Hillary. I recognize that that feeling is an effect of gender roles in society. I also do remember thinking that perhaps Hillary should run for Senate if she wanted a leadership role - at the time I didn't know that there was no Senate seat for DC. In any case, Hillary later ran for Senator, got it, and was nominated to be Secretary of State.

Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama were accomplished leaders in their own right before their husbands were elected as President. Clinton had several board positions, such as the Children's Defense Fund and Wal-Mart (urk). Obama held a VP of Community and External Affairs position at the University of Chicago Hospitals before her husband's campaign. She previously had several prominent government and non-profit positions.

Of course, now she's in DC. Her role as First Lady brings several expectations that conflict with her professional abilities. No doubt, after her husband leaves office, she will not have trouble finding leadership roles elsewhere. However, her present position constrains her.

What she makes of her office remains to be seen. It is a secondary office to the President's. I would say that she should seek leadership positions outside the White House, but I'm not sure that's really possible - any position she achieves might be seen as nepotism. However, the Washington Post does have a story on how she is aggressively moving to redefine her position.

For weeks, Michelle Obama had been telling her staff and closest confidantes that she wasn't having the impact she wanted. She is a woman of substance, with a background in law, public policy and management, who found herself relegated to role model in chief. The West Wing of the White House -- the fulcrum of power and policy -- had not fully integrated her into its agenda. She wanted more.

So, earlier this month, she changed her chief of staff, and now she's changing her role.

Her new chief of staff, Susan Sher, 61, is a close friend and former boss who the first lady thinks will be more forceful about getting her and her team on the West Wing's radar screen. The first thing Sher said she told senior adviser David Axelrod, whom she has known for years: When I call, "you need to get back to me right away."


In the past couple of weeks, Obama has been more vocal about the specifics of the president's health plan, and she will play a substantive role in promoting it. She will soon announce the creation of an advisory board to help military families. And she will be the face of the administration's United We Serve, a summer-long national service program, which she launched on Monday. Even her social events have a message: She let congressional families know that before the annual White House barbecue today, the 500 guests are expected to show up at Fort McNair to stuff camp backpacks with goodies for the children of military personnel.

Obama has also taken stock of her family life, which she has found to be more constrained than she expected. She has concluded that there's really only one road toward some semblance of a private life for them -- and it leads away from the White House.

Her role includes many elements of interacting with the community. The Post reports that she's recruited seasoned, driven professionals for her staff.

At work, Obama runs her office like a business in which she is chief executive. She doesn't want to micromanage, she has made clear; she wants to delegate. Up and down the hall are professional women with whom she has a longtime connection and whom she trusts to execute her vision. Rogers, another friend from Chicago, has an office just a few feet away. Also nearby is Jocelyn Frye, whom Obama met at Harvard Law School and who is the first lady's policy director. A family law advocate and expert on equal opportunity employment law, Frye is also a link to the D.C. community. She grew up in Washington and still lives a few blocks from her parents' house in the Michigan Park area of Northeast. She has pointed the first lady to homeless shelters, soup kitchens and schools.

She's also moving to support the President's agenda, and positioning herself within the Administration to do so.

Every morning, Rogers and Sher attend White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's 8:15 staff meeting. Johnston, a newcomer to Obama's circle but a White House veteran, and Katie McCormick Lelyveld, the first lady's press secretary, sit in on White House press secretary Robert Gibbs's daily message meeting. As part of the president's domestic policy team, Frye meets with its staff weekly. Senior aides David Medina and Trooper Sanders work on national service and international issues, and Norris remains close to the office in her new job at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

They're all focused on raising the stakes. "It isn't just about hugging," Sher said. "Whatever she talks about will bring press and interest, but it's important that she's not just talking [but] actually moving forward on those issues."

I want to see Michelle Obama assume a role that is commensurate with her skills. The US did not elect Michelle as President or to any other formal leadership position, and it will cause many people discomfort if she crosses a line by assuming authority she has not earned. However, it also does not serve society if we disenfranchise the spouses of our elected leaders.

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