What will Michelle Obama do with 4 more years?
First lady Michelle Obama acknowledges the crowd as President Obama speaks to supporters and donors at an inaugural reception for the 57th Presidential Inauguration at The National Building Museum in Washington, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. (AP / Charles Dharapak)
The Associated Press
Published Saturday, January 26, 2013 11:53AM EST
WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama has a new look, both in person and online, and with the president's re-election, she has four more years as first lady, too.
That's got many people wondering: What will she do with them?
Take on a new cause? Travel more? Trace the path of another first lady and keep the Obama political brand alive by running for office?
The answers are to be determined.
The first lady is trying to figure out what comes next for this self-described "mom in chief" who also is a champion of healthier eating, an advocate for military families, a fitness buff and the best-selling author of a book about her White House garden.
For certain, she'll press ahead with her well-publicized efforts to reduce childhood obesity and rally the country around its service members.
"But beyond that, the first lady is exploring ways that she can make a real difference for Americans, not just for these next four years, but for years to come," said Kristina Schake, Mrs. Obama's communications director.
Here are five areas to watch.
Will she take on a new cause? It's possible.
When Parade magazine asked last year whether she'd take up any new issues, Mrs. Obama identified women's health issues. "How do we strengthen families and make them healthier, an issue not just in America but around the world," she said.
Her marquee causes — the "Let's Move" campaign against childhood obesity and the "Joining Forces" effort to help military families — took a back seat last fall as she campaigned doggedly for President Barack Obama's re-election.
Look for her to begin publicizing those efforts anew.
Do not expect to see Mrs. Obama push more contentious issues such as gun control or immigration, both second-term priorities for the president. Her public approval rating was 73 percent in a December poll by CNN and she'd like to keep it there.
Some feminists remain unhappy that the Ivy League-educated lawyer hasn't used her position to champion what they view as more substantive issues.
Robert Watson, an American studies professor at Lynn University, said he hopes Mrs. Obama will use her popularity to pivot away from the "velvet-glove" issues first ladies typically embrace and say, "I'm swinging for the fence."
Malia and Sasha
Obama's daughters are older and will be in full teenage mode by the summer of 2014. Malia is already there at 14; sister Sasha is 11.
Both the president and first lady sometimes talk about the girls' busy lives and how they don't want to spend much time with their parents anymore.
Could having older, more independent children free Mrs. Obama to pursue other interests? Some first lady watchers say that's unlikely. After all, the teenage years are often full of angst about dating, proms, learning how to drive, going to college and so on.
"Michelle has made such a public statement about being the 'mom in chief' that it's hard to see her saying, 'Go ahead girls, here's the limo,'" Watson said.
Malia will graduate from high school during Obama's final year in office, in 2016, and probably trade the White House for a college dorm. She and her parents will have to navigate the college application process and campus tours. Sasha will be in high school.
Presidents and first ladies often step up the pace of international travel in the second term. But it seems unlikely that Obama could make such a pivot just yet, with the U.S. public still so concerned about the economy, unemployment and government spending.
One option would be to send Mrs. Obama abroad in his place.
The first lady is popular overseas and has been well-received outside the U.S., including in India, where she accompanied the president in 2010, and in Mexico, also in 2010, and in South Africa and Botswana in 2011, the only countries she has visited alone as first lady.
She and Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, traveled together to Haiti after the massive earthquake there in January 2010.
Mrs. Obama also went to Spain in the summer of 2010 on a personal trip with friends and daughter Sasha, but her stay at a luxury resort on the Costa del Sol wasn't well-received back home, raising questions about the cost and wisdom of taking such a trip during tough economic times.
Laura Bush pursued a grueling foreign travel schedule during George W. Bush's second term. She visited 77 countries in eight years as first lady, including with the president, but 67 of those trips came during the second term, including solo stops in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, according to Anita McBride, her then-chief of staff who runs American University's first ladies program.
Hillary Rodham Clinton also traveled abroad extensively during Bill Clinton's second term.
Run for public office
Will she or won't she? Despite Mrs. Obama's many denials of interest in seeking elected office herself, the question keeps getting asked. A recent survey found her to be more popular than Mark Kirk, the Republican senator from her home state of Illinois, in a hypothetical matchup.
"I have no interest in politics. Never have, never will," the first lady said last year on ABC's "The View."
But even those who at one time say "never" can later change their minds.
Hillary Clinton gave the same answer in 1995 when asked if she'd ever run for public office, says Myra Gutin, who studies first ladies at Rider University. But five years later, as her husband's presidency was ending, there was Clinton campaigning across New York for a Senate seat.
She won, used her time in the Senate as a springboard for her 2008 presidential campaign but lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. She became his secretary of state but is departing soon amid feverish speculation that she will run for president in 2016.
Mrs. Obama will be young — 53 years old — when her husband leaves office in January 2017, and will have a range of options ahead of her. Friends say she has always believed there are ways to serve the country without running for office.
Look for the first lady to continue to be a fashion trendsetter. Everything from her hair to her clothes is scrutinized, with some clothing pieces selling out quickly after she's seen wearing them.
Her new bangs became the talk of this town immediately after she went public with them on her 49th birthday, a few days before the president began his second term. Even the president said his wife's haircut was "the most significant event" of inaugural weekend and gave his approval.
Mrs. Obama also won largely positive reviews for her inaugural wardrobe: Reed Krakoff and Thom Browne by day, and Michael Kors and Jason Wu by night. Wu designed her red chiffon and velvet ball gown. He also designed the white ball gown she wore four years ago.
She also has a new presence on Twitter — (at)FLOTUS.