WASHINGTON — The government workers greeted Michelle Obama like a Hollywood celebrity, whooping and cheering and oohing and aahing over her slate gray power suit. But when she took to the podium, the nation’s self-described mom in chief quickly turned policy wonk.
The first lady pitched her husband’s economic stimulus package, including plans to create 15,000 affordable housing units, weatherize 2 million low-income homes and repair military housing. Such investments, Mrs. Obama told employees at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, would prevent “an increase in homelessness during these tough economic times.”
In her first weeks in the White House, Mrs. Obama has been the gracious hostess and loyal spouse, welcoming visitors to the Executive Mansion and accompanying President Obama to a prayer breakfast and to a charter school to read to second graders. But in a departure from her predecessor, Mrs. Obama has also begun promoting bills that support her husband’s policy priorities.
Last month, Mrs. Obama celebrated the enacting of a pay-equity law with a reception for women’s advocates at the White House. Last week, she supported the economic stimulus bill on her visit to the housing agency and another to the Department of Education.
Mrs. Obama plans to visit all the cabinet-level agencies on her tour to listen to and get to know Washington in the coming weeks, her aides say. They said she relished the chance to serve as one of the president’s chief surrogates on critical policy matters.
“One of the things she does really well is to highlight the benefits of pieces of legislation,” said Jackie Norris, Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff. “She’s really kind of laying out things that are important to the administration. I think she’ll play an active role in supporting the president’s agenda.”
It is a notably different approach than the one embraced by the former first lady, Laura Bush, who like most others steered clear of discussing legislation. Some observers praised Mrs. Obama’s foray into the legislative debate, saying the new first lady, who is a Harvard-educated lawyer and a former hospital executive, was eminently qualified to promote the president’s policies.
Others expressed surprise, saying they had expected Mrs. Obama to focus on her daughters and on the traditional issues she had emphasized in the presidential campaign, like supporting military families and working parents. Her remarks, they said, carried echoes of former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, though Mrs. Obama has said she will not become involved in policymaking as Mrs. Clinton did.
“She went to some lengths to say she was going to be first mom in chief,” Myra Gutin, a scholar of first ladies at Rider University in New Jersey, said of Mrs. Obama. “I don’t think we ever really imagined her edging toward public policy like this. It’s not like she’s making public policy. But it’s a little less neutral than some of the other things she’s talked about focusing on.”
Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center here, countered that Mrs. Obama was successfully balancing her ceremonial role as first lady, her role as a mother and her keen interest in public policy.
“It seems like a combination of responsibilities that fit very naturally with who she is,” said Ms. Greenberger, who attended the signing of the pay-equity law at the White House. “You don’t have a sense that being a mom and being human and being able to understand everybody’s daily struggles has to come at the expense of her intelligence, her expertise and her understanding of the issues.”
Mrs. Obama’s aides say she is still feeling her way as first lady. She is meeting regularly with her staff to plan events and hammer out her policy agenda even as she juggles play dates and goes over homework with her daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. (And yes, Mrs. Obama, like her husband, is keeping her BlackBerry.)
When Mr. Obama stood alongside members of Congress in a White House ceremony to celebrate the signing of the pay-equity legislation, Mrs. Obama found a seat in the audience with the women’s advocates, not on stage with the lawmakers.
And in her speech at the Education Department last week, Mrs. Obama quickly corrected herself when she used the word “we” to describe the educational investments the president hoped to make. “I shouldn’t say ‘we,’ but the administration ‘we,’ ” she said.
Her speeches to government employees have been warm and rousing, something akin to pep rallies, first lady style, as she has thanked them for their work. “I’m visiting — trying to visit all the agencies here to say a few things — one, to say hello,” Mrs. Obama said as the crowd roared back, “Hello!”
Indeed, Mrs. Obama seems to savor her role as a bridge between the White House and the community. Last week, she took time to hug, shake hands with and speak to dozens of government employees — from administrative assistants to agency heads — some of whom said they came close to tears at the sight of her. (“I got a hug!” one woman shouted jubilantly. “I got a hug!”)
Mrs. Obama plans to continue honing her message, her aides say. But she is also eager to get out of the White House and into the city.
Last week, she took her staff to lunch at Five Guys Burgers and Fries, where she had a cheeseburger, French fries and a Coke.
And when a little girl at the charter school visited by the Obamas announced that she dreamed of becoming first lady, Mrs. Obama flashed her self-deprecating wit. “It doesn’t pay much,” she advised.