Except for the staff of butlers and chefs and Secret Service agents, an Obama family dinner in the private quarters of the White House might ring familiar: Mom, Dad and children go around the table, reviewing the highs and lows of the day. “We do something called ‘roses and thorns,’ and we each share our rose and our thorn,” Michelle Obama says. She pauses. “Malia has pointed out to Barack that, as she said, ‘Dad, you seem to have a pretty thorny job.’ We looked at each other and laughed and said, ‘It’s okay, you can say that.'”
What about Mom’s job? She may not have quite the same burden of recession and war that consumes her husband daily, but Mrs. Obama, 45, has her own tricky path to navigate, a minefield of scrutiny and sky-high expectations. She is, all at once, so many different things to so many different people: the first African-American First Lady; mom to two very young girls; Ivy League-educated lawyer on hiatus from her own career; fashion icon; traditional hostess and wifely helpmate. Michelle Obama insists that she has taken on all of these roles with the same comfortable-in-her-own-skin aplomb that allows her to glide into her East Wing office wearing a sleeveless Tracy Reese dress of flamingo-pink lace—her hair in a summery updo—while a wintry gray drizzle spits at the window. “Other than the First Lady role, everything else are roles I’ve always had,” she says, settled into a yellow sofa left behind by Laura Bush in the as-yet-unredecorated office. “So there’s nothing foreign about what I’m doing.” Referring to that dinnertime game, Mrs. Obama smiles. “I have to say, I’ve had a lot of rosy days…. I think I have the good end of the deal.”
She looks you in the eye and says this convincingly. Which is noteworthy itself, when you consider that, as Barack Obama, 47, wrote in The Audacity of Hope, she disliked politics from the start and that his earliest foray—in the Illinois state Senate—strained their marriage as he left her home alone juggling a job and two babies. These days, she says, family life is better than ever. The couple are up early—she rises at 5:30 a.m.—and they exercise in the private gym and breakfast together nearly every morning. White House chefs cook them “mean waffles and grits,” she says. She has kept a BlackBerry of her own (two of them, actually, one business, one personal) but says she doesn’t text her husband during the day. She either walks over to the Oval Office to say hi or saves up the chitchat for their evenings in. “We have dinner as a family together every night, and Barack, when he’s not traveling, tucks the girls in,” she says. “We haven’t had that kind of time together for [years], so that explains a lot why we all feel so good in this space.”
Considering that her husband is facing the most challenging series of cascading global crises in recent memory, everyone seems surprisingly settled and relaxed. Mrs. Obama says the secret to the First Couple’s well-being is exercise, humor and an extraordinary mellowness. “Barack has always amazed me at his level of calm,” she says. “I see him thriving in this; I don’t see the weight. He is calm and clear in a way that reassures me as a citizen.” Six days a week, he also never misses a workout. “For Barack, exercise is even more important for his sort of structure than for me. I can skip a workout. I can go for days without going into a gym, quite frankly,” she says, laughing. “He really can’t.”
She recognizes that “helpmate” has taken on a whole new meaning as she watches her husband getting grayer by the month. As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently told Mrs. Obama, she may have the hardest job in Washington because, when times get tough for the President, “he has got to have someone he can lean on who understands and cares about him.” She says—and his aides agree—that it’s never been her style to weigh in at his policymaking table. The last thing he consulted her on? Spring break, she says.
Is their marriage really that perfect? Does the man have no insecurities? “Oh, you know, yes, I’m sure he does,” she says. “I’m not going to share them with you. But yes.” Has he finally kicked cigarettes? She raises two thumbs and hedges a bit: “Smoking is a difficult thing. My thumbs are up right now.”
Mrs. Obama says she’s aware of the mythology that has grown up around her 16-year marriage after so much analysis of the couple’s warm body language, starting with that onstage fist bump during the campaign, all the way through those romantic Inaugural dances. Yes, they really like and respect each other. But, she adds, “I don’t want anybody to think that it’s easy. It works because we really work at it…. We have a strong marriage, but it’s not perfect.”
From the start, Mrs. Obama says she was ready to take on the White House. Longtime pal Valerie Jarrett, now a West Wing adviser, recalls being a little surprised by how instantly at home Mrs. Obama seemed. “It looked as though she was right where she belonged,” says Jarrett. That first night, the President showed off some of the masterpieces on the walls. “We all kind of gasped, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the real thing!’ I don’t remember if it was a Monet or a Gauguin,” says Jarrett, “but Michelle is always very understated. She just said, ‘Pretty nice art, don’tcha think?'”
Such nonchalance might seem surprising for a woman who lived most of her life—not counting her years at Princeton and Harvard Law School—a stone’s throw from the one-bedroom South Side Chicago apartment where she grew up the working-class daughter of a city water-department worker and stay-at-home mother. But her roots have always been the most important thing to Mrs. Obama, and they are already guiding her first steps as First Lady. While she works with her staff to shape an agenda that will include issues of work-family balance and supporting military spouses—and with the President’s aides on contributing to his upcoming proposals for national service—Mrs. Obama has made a point of calling on her new neighbors in Washington, D.C., telling staff at one nearby agency she was raised to “get to know the community that you live in.” And she’s already begun opening the White House to students so that they might find role models among the unsung kitchen, residence and grounds staff.
So far, though, her main focus has been to settle her girls Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, into their new school, Sidwell Friends, and head-turning new lives. Fortunately they’re the ones keeping everyone grounded. “Our girls are just complete comic relief,” she says. “We’re dealing with the age range where they’re pretty funny in their observations and sort of lack of being impressed with any of this.”
Though the First Lady says she would like “to keep them out of the [public] conversation,” she does share some details. “The girls are great,” she says. “They love their school. They love having Grandma here; they love seeing their dad.” She says they’re already getting too old for two cherished traditions she told PEOPLE about just last year: bedtime books with Mom and Dad—”they’re now independent readers”—and crawling into their parents’ bed for lazy, early-morning chats and cuddles. “They’re getting older now where it’s, like, they relish the sleep,” she says.
Key parts of life haven’t changed for Sasha and Malia, however. With their grandmother Marian Robinson, 71, staying in a third-floor guest room to help out, the girls have the same chores—make their beds, clean their rooms, clear their dishes—that applied in their Chicago home. And Mrs. Obama has asked the White House staff not to do too much. “People [here] want to make your life easy, and when you have small kids—I’ve explained this to the staff—they don’t need their lives to be easy. They’re kids.” The girls do have roaming privileges all around the historic mansion and can pop into the Oval Office whenever they want. “I’ve tried to encourage them to feel like this whole place is their home,” Mrs. Obama says. “We actually had this conversation—just let us know where you’re going.”
She is trying to make the White House cozy for herself as well. Though she says the campaign got her accustomed to some loss of freedom, such as “trips to Target and all the things that were my errands and my time for me,” she still intends to “go over to a girlfriend’s and have dinner.” On Feb. 19 she had a girls’ night in, inviting secretaries and policymakers alike to join her for popcorn and a screening of He’s Just Not That Into You while her husband was traveling from Canada. As hostess she is putting her stamp on things without feeling bound by tradition. For her first big dinner, the Governors’ Ball on Feb. 22 (see box, p. 118), she mixed three different china patterns for the dinner service and let slip to reporters that she already plans to design an Obama china for the White House before she leaves. “What she’s doing is very imaginative,” says Ann Stock, social secretary in the Clinton White House.
If there’s anything about her new life that Mrs. Obama openly (if half jokingly) chafes at, it’s the lack of a paycheck. As the former lawyer and hospital executive once pulling in a $300,000-plus salary recently cracked to a second-grade girl, the job of First Lady “doesn’t pay much.” Not that the family can’t live very well on her husband’s $400,000 alone, but Mrs. Obama says she remains a bargain hunter and, in this economy, will be turning to familiar national retailers for decorating her girls’ rooms. Asked if she’s looking at her 401(k) statements these days, she shakes her head. “Oh, God, no. We’re probably like a lot of folks; you have to look long-term now.” She insists that she doesn’t miss her independent career. “I have very full days,” she says. “When we’re done, I can structure a more formal career if that’s where I choose to go.”
Mrs. Obama knows that chief among those looking up to her for inspiration are African-Americans, especially young women. And she says that’s precisely why she chose to put on a designer dress and pose for Vogue. “While I don’t consider myself a fashionista,” she says, “I thought it was good for my daughters and little girls just like them, who haven’t seen themselves represented in these magazines, hopefully to talk more broadly about what beauty is, what intelligence is, what counts.”
At the moment, the thing that counts the most for two particular little girls is the First-Dog-to-Come—though Mrs. Obama confesses to some surprise at the public’s fascination with the subject. But okay, she’ll spill a few details: Mrs. Obama says she favors Portuguese Water Dogs, the breed Sen. Ted Kennedy lobbied for. And the target date is April, after that spring break trip. “So Sasha says ‘April 1st.’ I said, ‘April.’ She says, ‘April 1st.’ It’s, like, April!” There’s also been some back and forth about possible dog names: Mom doesn’t like the ones Sasha and Malia have floated. “Frank was one of them. Moose was another,” she says with a laugh and a roll of her eyes. “I’m like, no. Come on. Let’s work with the names a little bit.”
For now, she’s just focused on the job at hand, saying she wants to live up to being the helpmate and role model Americans are looking for in a First Lady. “I embrace that. I don’t feel that to be a burden in any way, shape or form,” she says before heading upstairs to change clothes for a concert she’s hosting in honor of African-American History Month. “I’m excited by the possibilities.”