Quietly, Michelle Obama lays the groundwork for policy role

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 29, 2009 

WASHINGTON — While her inaugural wear, choice of a decorator and disapproval of unauthorized Sasha and Malia dolls make headlines, first lady Michelle Obama has quietly assembled a staff that's steeped in women's and workplace issues to support her role as a policy advocate.

The Harvard-trained lawyer, community organizer and hospital executive offered a glimpse of what's to come when her husband, President Barack Obama, on Thursday signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which gives women more legal standing to sue for pay discrimination. The first lady was in the audience, not at the president's side — but she spoke at the private reception afterward.

She told representatives of about 150 advocacy groups that the legislation is a "cornerstone of a broader commitment to address the needs of working women who are looking to us, to not only ensure that they're treated fairly, but also to ensure that there are policies in place that help women and men balance their work and family obligations without putting their jobs or their economic security at risk.''

Obama's aides like to say that she'll be a mother first and an advocate second. The economic crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could put workplace policy on the slow track anyhow. Because she's the nation's first black first lady and grew up working-class, however, activists say that Michelle Obama can be a trusted voice for minorities while reshaping how whites see women of color and how society regards its obligations to working parents.

Feminist leaders expect that she'll be more hands-on about policy than Laura Bush was, but won't follow Hillary Clinton's attempt as first lady to lead a White House initiative on health care.

The first lady's chief of staff, Jackie Norris, said in an interview that Michelle Obama is a daily presence in her East Wing offices and is beginning to build relationships with federal employees and District of Columbia residents.

Her staff holds daily morning meetings and is establishing a weekly session for assessment and long-term planning.

"A lot of where we are is brainstorming and thinking through the policy trajectories we may go in," Norris said. "Over time, you'll see our policy path."

In putting together her staff of 20, Obama sought a mix of campaign, policy, White House and Capitol Hill credentials, Norris said. "At the end of the day what we wanted is a large group of people that would come in with a diversity of experiences and look at an issue from 20 different ways."

Policy director Jocelyn Frye was the general counsel and director of the workplace fairness program at the National Partnership for Women and Families. Frye was involved in developing the Ledbetter legislation.

"My hope is that Jocelyn can help Mrs. Obama be a voice that reframes these issues as real bread and butter economic security issues, real basic things," said Debra Ness, the National Partnership's president.

Deputy chief of staff David Medina was the political director for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards' presidential campaign and worked for the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign. USGLC executive director Liz Schrayer called Medina "a very strategic thinker" with strong labor and minority connections.

Melissa Winter, also a deputy chief of staff, spent 18 years on Capitol Hill and was the first lady's traveling campaign chief of staff.

Deputy policy director Trooper Sanders worked for former Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, and the Bill Clinton Foundation. Communications director Camille Johnston, who oversaw communications for the Los Angeles Dodgers, had been Tipper Gore's communications director.

"It's a very political staff, with a lot of political experience, and that's a good thing," said Kim Gandy, the president of the National Organization for Women. "It says to me she (Michelle Obama) intends to be involved and intends to have a hand in promoting some issues that are important to her."

Desiree Rogers, the White House social secretary, and her team also are housed under the first lady's staff. Rogers is a friend of the Obamas from Chicago, and also a prominent corporate executive with insurance, energy and state lottery experience.

Norris, the chief of staff, is an Iowa campaign veteran who also once worked for Gore. She and Michelle Obama bonded while riding around the state in a minivan together in the months before the January Democratic caucuses.

Norris has three young children. "I knew going into this that the first lady has the ultimate respect for boundaries for working professionals, and that I would work my heart out during the day and work my heart out as a mother at night.

"One thing we've been stressing with the staff is we want people to work effectively and efficiently, but we also want people to enjoy their family and their friendships. There's a time and a place for work. But there's a recognition we all have family, and we want to keep our whole selves complete."

Women's workplace advocates have a wish list of issues they'd like to see the first lady engage:

  • Equal pay for women and minorities who do the same work as white men.
  • Paid sick days for workers.
  • Expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act, including paid leave and protection for workers at smaller companies.
  • Expanded affordable child care.
  • Unemployment insurance extensions, including benefits for part-time workers and for civilian spouses who lose work when a military spouse is transferred.
  • Pay parity and partial benefits for part-time workers and incentives for employers to allow flex-time and flex-commuting.
  • Legal protection for employees who request schedule changes.

Marie Wilson, the president of the women's leadership group The White House Project, said that workplace advocacy "won't be seen as the tough hard issue that it is; it's not the economy or national security."

As a society, Wilson said, "We don't get that the soft things now are the hard things. The issue that keeps women out of leadership really is, 'How do I manage my family?'"

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