"I was raised to believe that when you get, you give back," Michelle Obama told a group of 13 high school students Tuesday afternoon. She was visiting Mary's Center, a community health organization in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The kids wanted to know why she'd made the milelong trip north. "We were taught you have to get to know the community you're in, and you have to be a part of that community. … Barack is real busy right now, so I figured I've got the time on my hands and while the kids are in school, I figured I would come out and hear about programs and meet students."
She described all of this as if the man she called Barack were an ambitious accountant, not the guy who the night before had given a prime-time press conference in the East Room of the White House.
But Michelle Obama wasn't just there to talk about the power of community outreach. She was offering herself as a symbol. "I was somewhat where you are," she told the kids. "I didn't come to this position with a lot of wealth and a lot of resources. I think it's real important for young kids, particularly kids who come from communities without resources, to see me. Not the first lady, but to see that there is no magic to me sitting here. There are no miracles that happen. There is no magic dust that was sprinkled on my head or Barack's head. We were kids much like you who figured out one day that our fate was in our own hands. We made decisions to listen to our parents and work hard, and work even harder when somebody doubted us. When somebody told me I couldn't do something, that gave me a greater challenge to prove them wrong. … Every little challenge like that and every little success, I gained more confidence, and life just sort of opened up. So I feel like it's an obligation for me to share that with you."
In her hourlong visit, Obama talked a little about her husband's stimulus package and efforts to build strong schools. But she was hardly a wonk. At one point she fumbled for the correct description of the S-CHIP program Obama had just signed into law. She wasn't pitching, she was collecting data. "What would you tell the nation, because they're all listening," she said, noting the cameras and reporters in the room. "What would you tell the president, because I might talk to him tonight."
When it came to talking about personal responsibility, the first lady's pitch was identical to her husband's. "That's the difference between being a kid and an adult," she said, describing the call to get involved in a community. "It's not the money you make or the degree that you have but it's the choice that you make to be active and involved and a responsible citizen, and no president can mandate that, no mayor can mandate that. It comes from us, our faith, our belief in one another. It's not just what I need and who is going to give it to me, but what can I do? What kind of citizen am I going to be? What kind of parent am I going to be? What kind of neighbor am I going to be? And what am I going to do the next time a crime is committed? Am I going to walk by? Do I call the police? Do I get involved? That is all part of the conversation we need to have as a society."
Before leaving, the first lady posed for photographs and signed a poster for the center. "Always think about where you came from and what you're going to give back," she told the students on the way out. The kids, who were a slightly quiet bunch, didn't immediately respond. "Sound right?" she asked them, a little pointedly. They all said yes.
Before sitting with the teenagers, the first lady read to nine preschool children. "What's going on?" she asked when she entered the windowless classroom filled with art projects, hanging valentines, and big block letters of the alphabet. "Hello, little people."
The little people were happy, but not excessively so. She had not, after all, brought candy. Or maybe they were unnerved by all the flashes from the cameras.
"My name is Michelle, and I'm married to the president of the United States. Do you know his name?"
"Barack Obama," said a 5-year-old girl named Anais, who became the star of the show. She also knew the Obama daughters' names and several other pieces of information. (She was silent, however, on the stimulus bill.)
The first lady took her seat but quickly moved onto the purple rug to get closer to the kids. She asked each child his or her name, getting down to eye level. Two young boys were reluctant to interact. One, David, was playing with cars. "What about you with the cars?" she said in mock irritation. "Hey! You with the cars?" David didn't respond. She grabbed his shoe, which also had a car on it. "You have cars everywhere," she said.
The first lady started reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, which she seemed to know by heart. It's a simple tale of animals and colors in which each animal sees the next one. The kids read along with her through pictures of a yellow duck and a blue horse, and when it came time for the purple cat, she said "meow" and so did the kids. Next, she turned the page to the white dog. "Where are my dogs at?" she asked, taking the standard first lady's grammatical license. Everyone barked.
When Obama got to the fish, there was some confusion about the color. Was it gold or orange? She surveyed the crowd. "Lets make a team decision." A child insisted it was orange.
"OK, let's call it orange," she said. "You made a compelling case."
Obama was handed another book. She passed because the book was in Spanish.
"You don't know Spanish?" asked a child.
"No, and it's ridiculous," she responded.
Then the first lady called for hugs. Most of the children complied. The cameras went nuts. This might have made a few kids reluctant.
"More, more, more," she said. To the reluctant ones, she asked: "Whatcha, leaving me hanging?" Eventually they all piled on. It was, in the end, a group hug.